Erik ReeL: The Art of Kenosis

by Kaya Noteboom

Love can often be mistaken for wanting to be consumed by another person. Here I am

talking about the idea of love as a kind enmeshment that is so complete that someone can feel a cavernous internal sense of longing that ricochets off their intestinal walls – a longing so profound that it involves becoming a vessel of sorts, a container for pure love. To achieve this, you have to start from something empty, something that was someone, which is made to be vacant. In this sense, we could say that self-annihilation and love then share some common ground. In this model, love is to become a receptacle or a receiver. This feeling is kenosis.

Kenosis is the sacrificial exercise of self-emptying, purging one’s desires to make room for the divine. Making oneself empty to be full of perfect love. Jesus supposedly performed this in the book of Philippians, proving that, although he was the son of God, he harbored desires and was imperfectly human. Like you. Like me. But kenosis is hard to come by in the secular world. These materialistic methods of kenosis, like laxative dependency, binging disorder, and romantic co-dependency, wane quickly in their effectiveness, but one artist has found a way to make it sustain. This is Erik ReeL.

In the past several years of a decades long career, ReeL has developed the practice of kenosis in the realm of painting; first in 2018 by draining his works of figurative elements in an attempt to overcome Western obsession with materialism, and now he has gone a step further, in his first show in the Pacific Northwest in thirty-six years. In the exhibition, What’s So Lovely About the End of the World? (WSLATEOTW?) his maximalist compositions offer us a view of

what a kenotic state feels like from the inside once we begin to feel our way into the abstract canvases.

The curator's statement about the exhibition, declares that “The beauty of life allows us to keep learning, to keep creating and engaging in the arts, to keep absorbing beauty around us ... while fighting the destructive headwinds of a dying earth”, and prompts us to consider what role art play. “Can the beauty of art and the consciousness of artists negate the power of the apocalypse?” (WSLATEOTW?). It is here that ReeL’s perspective has a certain resonance with the insights of ecological philosopher, Timothy Morton, who has argued that ecological information dumps aren’t going to stop global warming. This is because we may already be living in a period known as the sixth great mass extinction, or the Anthropocene, which is already aghast in the “headwinds of a dying earth.”

For Morton and ReeL, the task isn’t to prevent an apocalypse, but to figure out how to be alive in one. Where they differ however is in why that they each call for a shift in consciousness. ReeL believes Kenosis can help us achieve this by exhausting the anxious and obsessive desire to prevent what is already in motion whereas Morton proposes an attitude of tuning to the present, or an abundant awareness of the “sensuous existence of other lifeforms.[1] As such, Kenosis is letting go while keeping illusion of agency intact. Both positions rely on a sense of permission to embrace a Bodhisattva-like acceptance of The End, but for Morton this is forced upon us, whereas for ReeL, Kenosis is not just surrender, but a kind of divine surrender from within.

ReeL understands this dialectic intimately. The forty pieces on display at PLACE, an international architectural design firm located in Northwest Portland, present a record of psychic kinesthesia. A painting like Burning by a Bright Star (2023) plays with the tension between percussive lines and looming shapes. In it, we find thin gestural white lines that look like rungs in a ladder, organically organized across Pepto-pink oblong forms and a landscape of deep green that grows outward from the edges. Overlain with fleshy tones, they could be keloids of suture scars, or the remnants of being impaled by wheel spokes in a freak bike accident. One pink form droops down, forming a gentle arc that leads the viewers eye into the lower left visual field. This part is a recognizable sex organ, which is distinctly human, but which remains somewhat obscure too. It is something like a nudge that we are concerned with a state of embodiment throughout the exhibition.

After all, Kenosis is supposed to strip away human desire, but human desire finds a strong presence in this composition. The sense of kinesthesia that informs a work like Burning by a Bright Star isn’t due to the juxtaposition of erogenous elements, rather it’s created by the rigorous cleansing of its sexual connotations. Bright spots of molten red and orange dominate the composition are subdued by an enveloping hue of sea-green, which acts as something like a visual counter-balance.

Another piece that commands careful contemplation is Viva Ukraine (2023). While its title is obviously political, the work takes a radical turn away from the subtlety of formalist abstraction which dominates the rest of the exhibition. The colors and repetitive white marks seem strikingly similar to Burning by a Bright Star, but in this iteration, the strokes appear to be much more scattered and frantic – kinetic even. All this movement does is create a fast-paced sense of action, and the message of the work certainly depends on it. Otherwise, the text in all caps would feel entirely overstated, and perhaps even a bit hostile.

Instead, it suggests—rather forcefully—that the message imposed is not to be questioned. It’s in this piece where ReeL’s kenosis divulges a specific sense of intent—and that is to empty yourself of one thing and replace it with something else, this work perhaps. It isn’t necessarily an ill-intentioned move in this political climate, but rather, it works it expose a critical imperative that many viewers might miss if they weren’t a bit more familiar with the painter’s personal commitments, which are copious and quite esoteric.

Much like ReeL, the theosophist Annie Bessant could not afford to be too trusting of how an “average mind” handled their own thoughts irresponsibly. This was probably best articulated in Annie Bessant and C.W. Leadbeater’s book, Thought-Forms, which presented a number of visual representations that posited a relationship between of thoughts, emotions, colors, and shapes. Bessant and Leadbeater regarded themselves as clairvoyants who could not only read people’s thoughts but see them. In this way, they developed a system for categorizing thoughts by their effects and affects on the mental and astral bodies, which are most deeply connected to thought-forms out of the three bodies (the third being the physical body) in theosophical teachings.[2] The particular project not only sought to evidence the existence of clairvoyance but to demonstrate how one person’s thoughts and emotions could resonate with, and even inside others, and none of this has been lost on ReeL.

This is because Bessant and Leadbeater wanted to "[give] a moral lesson to every reader, making him realize the nature and power of his thoughts, acting as a stimulus to the noble, a curb on the base.” Meaning, they strived for the betterment of mankind on principles of race, class, and gender equality. Bessant not only had a spiritual mission but a political one as a prolific writer of women’s liberation at the turn of the 20th century. For all of her ambition to influence the world around her to embrace higher aspirations, Bessant also believed that a person could “pour out from himself vibrations which tend to stir up thought at a similar level in others.” This is a gesture towards the kind of kenosis that ReeL seeks too.

Following Bessant, who believed that the mental body contained its own source of “living iridescent light,” – we could say that this is really what is on display in ReeL’s exhibition What’s So Lovely About the End of the World? (WSLATEOTW?). Or, that when “the intellect becomes more highly evolved and is employed chiefly on pure and sublime topics,” that this is when the mental body becomes “an extraordinarily radiant and entrancing loveliness”[3] which is what ReeL’s work aspires to as well.

In one painting in particular, ReeL approaches the entrancing loveliness of the mental body made sublime, and that work is What’s So Lovely About the End of the World? (2022). While the show was named after this rather singular image, which seems to depict pockets of nebula, and glowing behind diffused particles of paint-–it connects with Bessant’s thought-forms inasmuch as it feels like it contains its own light source. 

Floating amidst an atmosphere of turquoise and violet, which are the dominant hues in the exhibition, are remnants of ReeL’s CAT-1 series too, where his fascination with primordial language and universal signs resulted in a recurring set of symbols and markings that would, in theory, be universally legible. Many of these works look like letters of the Roman alphabet. In fact, this painting features two complete German words, “welt” and “ende,” but their relation to one another isn’t so obvious as prior uses. This strange sense of ambiguity adds to the uncertainty of the picture’s title, but it connects with Bessant’s impulse to describe a fundamental, primordial language in thought and form. Here, the show reaches comes to a close inasmuch it gives us one last taste of the possibility of a personal experience of kenosis.

In the end, we are all but left with images of stardust, smog, and two words that relate but we don’t really know how or even why for that matter. However, these canvases refuse to be a clean slate. They refuse certainty, success, or even the sense of a crisis averted. They don’t illustrate a calm void of “finished” kenosis or the stable material figuration of a “before”, but the place where we find ourselves now—struggling to live in an era of mass extinction.

This struggle, which is as spiritual as it is material, preludes ReeL in Spiritualist painters like Agnes Pelton and Hilma af Klint who were working against the same set of contradictions in their own time, albeit, somewhat differently. More recently, Claire Milbrath has written about “a renewed interest in New Age spirituality” in relation to contemporary art. Milbrath underscores the irony in this, noting the smorgasbord of dilettante religiosity online and concludes that this generation is more spiritually lost than ever. Surely, Hilma af Klint didn’t mean our generation, a generation adrift on fair-weather faith? Filling your head with a cacophony of aimless piety does nothing to assuage the slow internal bleed of existential dread.

This rather contentious wave coincides with a new crop of female painters who are interested in spirituality like Theodora Allen, Elise Lafontaine, and Darby Milbrath. Milbrath cites the “decades long embargo” that Af Klint placed on her Paintings for the Temple which were supposedly produced under the direct instruction of God.[4] Af Klint claimed it would take a more spiritually mature generation beyond hers to understand them – and perhaps ReeL is part of just such a generation. Fallible beings like us-–the children of a lost modernity and an absent God-–have a penchant for taking things too far when we are left to our own devices. ReeL warns, in his book Pterodactyl Cries: Art, Abstraction, and Apocalypse (2021), of a grimly hallowed precipice to regarding kenosis, from which humanity may never return:

The greatest fear may be that people will become unable to relate or see art, they become emptied out to the point where it is no longer possible to sense someone, an artist, or an image, is speaking to or trying to interact with their inner core. The final result of this externalization is an emptying out, another kenosis... It is an emptying out that no amount of additional external inputs can fulfill. At the extreme of objectivity, we reach the orgasm of technology where internal life disappears altogether. [5]

Perhaps kenosis is a project that is never meant to be completed, or an effort that is always meant to be just that. For once it reaches an end, it’s an end for all of us. ReeL’s show delivers the importance of staying in the middle of crisis–-the heart of catastrophe-–while embracing the likely possibility of total obliteration. In this sense, we succeed in our kenosis by always failing. And isn’t that what we’re supposed to especially if it’s true that we are God’s children? Or perhaps we’re the heirs of Beckett and the only sign of the time is to fail and fail better? ReeL seems to think that when we’re empty to the point of being able sense what speaks to our inner core, we’ll finally know that we’ve succeeded at last. How far this exhibition succeeds in bringing us each to the point of kenosis however, remains an open question.

1 Timothy Morton, “Tuning,” Being Ecological. (Penguin Books Ltd, London, 2018), 57.

2 Annie Besant & C.W. Leadbeater, “The Difficulty of Representation,” Thought Forms, (Sacred Stone Books, 2020), 16-20.

3 Annie Besant & C.W. Leadbeater, “The Difficulty of Representation,” Thought Forms, (Sacred Stone Books, 2020), 18-24.

4 Claire Milbrath, “Guided by the Light: A Spiritualist Revival,” Editorial Magazine, Issue 22 (2023) 

5 Erik ReeL, Pterodactyl Cries: Art, Abstraction, and Apocalypse, (Centaur, 2021), 102.

The Author

Kaya Notebloom is a writer and currently in the Pacific Northwest College of Art [PNAC] graduate school Critical Theory program [class of 2025].

[this article has been reformatted for display on this website]

text copyright 2023 Kaya Noteboom, all rights reserved