Signs of a Lost civilization

by Ben Chinay

The first two shows of a trio of shows put together by Erik ReeL have unveiled over 50 paintings of substantial quality displayed in four rooms. The space is a bit raw without benefit of gallery lighting, which only makes one wonder how great this work would look in a real museum or well-lit space. As it is, the work looks surprisingly good. Better than most anything else exhibited in the county this year. The highlight is a six by eight foot canvas covering a wall in the otherwise weakest room. The work scales well.

Over the past couple of years, ReeL has been assailing us with a rather improvisational version of abstraction with an emphasis on small linear calligraphic strokes and simple closed or semi-closed curves. All of it is aggressively free-hand—no perfect circles here. The strength of the work is its color and a lively sense of push and pull in and out of the visual space. The markings appear to float and hover through some sort of fluid medium. Many passages suggest movement, with clusters of marks seeming to swarm and move through the space like so many schools, not of fish, but of hints of symbols, letterforms, and indefinable scratches. Every so often one identifies a distinct, readable form—an upside-down A, a Greek phi, labia, a boat-like outline.

The title of the series is Signs of a Lost Civilization: an appropriate play on words: For the marks in these paintings look as if they may be from archeological remnants of some lost civilization. Or aren’t these marks from our own civilization, and is it, indeed, lost?

ReeL’s works with liquid acrylics and lots of acrylic medium, laying on transparent layers over each other, sometimes scratching down to the layer underneath, a technique called sfgraffitto. Most of the markings seem to be made with drawing media, such as pastels or pencils, but are often smudged in a way that gives a more painterly impression. The compositions are radically asymmetrical, but feel well-balanced; in fact, there is a sense of repose and calm to much of the work. The work is beautiful, but never pretty or petty.

What does it all mean? Obviously the work invites whatever personal meaning and reading a viewer brings to it. The culminating show of this trio of shows will be at Vita Art Center at the Bell Arts Factory in Ventura, and promises to be a fine finale to a substantial body of work—perhaps one of the most substantial bodies of work—presented on the central coast in a long time.

copyright 2011 Ben Chinay all rights reserved

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