Born in Seattle in 1952, Erik ReeL attended Whitman College majoring in mathematics and philosophy, the University of California, at Berkeley, and the University of Washington majoring in art history and studio art, graduating summa cum laude in 1975. ReeL studied art history with Rainer Crone, painting with Jacob Lawrence, Michael Spafford, Bob Jones, and Michael Dailey, color with Richard Dahn [a student of Albers], sumi-e with George Tsutakawa, and, independently, Chinese brush with Hsai Chen.
In the late 1970s Reel wrote on art for a number of publications including Vanguard, ArtExpress, High Performance magazines, Artweek, and/or Notes, wrote a weekly column for the Bellevue Journal-American, and was the arts editor for the Seattle Voice city magazine. ReeL sat on two Seattle Arts Commission Special Task Forces: Media and Educational Institutions in the Arts.
In his twenties, Reel was involved in performance art as well as writing and painting, performing in pieces at the Seattle Art Museum and Washington Hall in Seattle, usually collaborating with musicians and dancers, while exhibiting paintings regularly with the original Jackson Street Gallery located upstairs at 123 Jackson Street. For five years ReeL taught art history, color theory, and life painting at the Seattle Central Community College until he left Seattle in 1984.
ReeL’s painting has alternated between phases of figurative and abstract imagery until 2009 when he took a position clearly critical of the hypermaterialism of contemporary society by stripping all references to the physical world from his work to produce his mature non-objective style.
In a presentation at the Morris Graves Museum of Art, Portland-based art critic, Jae Carlsson [Art Dish, ArtForum] pointed out ReeL’s visual and philosophical connections to earlier Seattle painters Morris Graves and Mark Tobey, while at the same time indicating that ReeL had pushed his work beyond Post-Modernist limitations. As well as these influences from earlier Seattle precedents there are influences from the Black Mountain Arts School via Jacob Lawrence and Bob Jones. An exhibition of Cy Twombly’s in New York in the late 1970s has also been cited by ReeL as an early influence during a talk in Santa Barbara in 2010.
ReeL’s work after 2003 features a technique consisting mainly of pastel and dry media used in conjunction with liquid acrylic paints in a way that ignores the distinction between drawing and painting. In a 2010 catalog of Reel’s work, art critic Nikki Arconi writes:
ReeL’s technique exhibits a high degree of transparency, layering, sfgraffito and graffitto, with a strong sense of hand, the hand-made, and an absence of any references to the material world. This work can be seen as a thorough-going critique of materialism, the machine or machine-made, and the triumph of feeling over the manufactured. For ReeL, marking is a defining characteristic of the human and the primordial act of signification and meaning for human consciousness.
In 2017, the following statement was published regarding understanding Reel’s work:
Like an archaeologist uncovering the remnants of written language ReeL creates meaning from, not just what is visible, but in what has been obscured. To understand ReeL’s work one must look at his attraction to such seemingly incongruent influences as erased whiteboards, blizzards, improvisational music, and abandoned industrial sites. His work celebrates the meaning in remnants, the hidden, the random and destroyed.
In 2019 ReeL relocated to Portland, Oregon, where he currently maintains his studio and lives with his wife, Rhonda P. Hill.
Statement by the artist:
My work has been influenced by micro- and nano-photography, poorly erased whiteboards, sidewalks, ruins, abandoned industrial sites, ancient stone surfaces, fire, sand, sea and ice, charcoal, hieroglyphs, esoteric texts, Hubble Ultra-Deep Field photographs, foundries, wars, concrete, female pubic hair, cytoplasm, craters, wood, photographs of things we cannot see with the naked eye in real time, paintings, railroad box-car markings, Skandinavian runes, blizzards, scratched surfaces, improvisational music, typography, the human voice, the night sky, the inside of an eyeball, the surface of other planets, scars, deserts, scorched earth, and the accidental, which is not really indeterminate, but the result of subtler action on a deeper plane of consciousness.
I have been particularly inspired by improvisational music: Miles Davis, Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Theolonus Monk, Dewey Redman, Flamenco, Imrat Khan and the improvisational traditions of the Indian sub-continent.
As for early influences, growing up in Seattle my visual starting point for painting was Mark Tobey’s White Writing paintings. Other influences included Pacific Northwest Scandinavian textile, architectural, and design traditions, which tend to be highly abstract. Later, it was Klee and Miro: In terms of color theory there is a direct lineage from Itten and Klee to Albers to Dahn to myself. At university, influences also came from Michael Spafford and the Black Mountain school via Jacob Lawrence and Robert Jones, then slightly later, Cy Twombly via his exhibitions in the 1970s.
I have found that my researches into human mark making are capable of sensitizing people to the subtleties of their internal cognitive processing in ways that are not easy to verbalize, but are clearly perceived by those observers who look sufficiently long enough to fully experience the paintings directly. This is a process bound by specific cognitive constraints that take a certain amount of time. You cannot rush biology; a glance is insufficient.
photo 1: Erik ReeL at Front Street Studio, Ventura, California Studio, 2016, photo: Skye Bennike
photo 2: Laurie Kirby and Boom Duo [John Lacques and Noah Thomas] at Front Street Studio, 2015, photo: Rhonda P. Hill