Sleeping With the Dragon: “Pterodactyl Cries” Challenges Art World Presumptions

My husband, Erik ReeL, just published a book; the book the art world has not been waiting for, maybe even dreading.   And I’d say there are similar (or equally) strong messages for the fashion community that will ruffle some shirts.

From the press release:

“Provocative, highly readable, and timely, Erik ReeL’s Pterodactyl Cries: Art, Abstraction, and Apocalypse … takes a left turn into the raw guts of the art world’s most sacred cows. Eviscerating everything in sight from artist’s statements to its acceptance of racism and the historical suppression of feminism, ReeL reveals connections everywhere, including to apocalyptic tendencies imbedded throughout our cultural machinery.

Starting with Kirk Varnedoe’s challenge to Gombrich’s A.W. Mellon lectures, Pterodactyl Cries draws from a wide array of sources ranging from Aristotle to Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Jung, to Boole, Bateson, Turing, and Chomsky, to the impacts of technology and artificial intelligence, in a lively discussion of visual art for those who feel they don’t get it—or get it all too well—challenging a lot of the art world’s favorite assumptions along the way. ReeL attacks materialism, pointing out its malicious influence on our art, and how history has been misused to justify systemic injustice, such as sexism, racism, and colonialism through a “tyranny of false evidence,” deceit, and more than a helping hand from our art world.”

Why would a “fashion intelligence” platform talk about this book?  Because it opens up a dialogue on the similarities to the fashion industry.  The systemic injustice alone is one the industry continues to wrestle with when it comes to pay and upwardly available positions for women and people of color.  In the chapter “Sleeping with the Dragon”, ReeL writes, “For the modern world, sleeping with the dragon means following the money to the neglect of the depths of the culture.” One could argue fast fashion follows the money, neglecting the cultural, societal, and environmental aspects of fashion.

Clothes clearly outnumber the 7.9 billion people on the planet.  Do we really need more? Although fashion has its utilitarian purpose, we can view it as more than just a consumptive object.  A new generation of designers are doing just that. They are feeding us an intelligent dialogue about fashion’s contribution to art, culture, and sustaining earth’s resources.

“Pterodactyl Cries” is a fascinating read philosophically, but you don’t have to be a scholar to see how it relates to many sectors of society.  Materialism and the environmental crisis affect us all regardless of what you believe.  The book makes you pause and rethink how you consume beauty, the arts, or just things.

What about things?  ReeL’s blatant message is to view improvisational, objectless, no-thing-ness paintings as a meaningful and potent part of beauty in our culture. We don’t think of fashion as non-objective.  It represents a component of the material world that has a superficial meaning as an object, a materialistic obsession, an object of no value, as he references in the opening paragraph of “Objectlessness” the fashion industry’s production of a lot of things that are thrown away.

Note: ReeL’s chapter titles are as captivating as the book title.  In the chapter “Materialist Conceit”, ReeL writes about how materialistic we are at the destruction of the ecosystem, challenging the authenticity of our values.  “If we are going to be concerned about the material world, the physical world, we need to be ecosystem oriented, radically so.”

Ok fashion community are you woke, yet? More things and ecological integrity don’t go hand in hand, and for the past 3-4 decades, the more-is-more fashion movement is counter to preserving the ecosystem.

ReeL specifically uses the example of potable water. Our material concern should be to preserve and regenerate clean water, to preserve the ecosystem that supplies it, but materialism does the opposite, “it destroys the physical environment. Ecological integrity is exactly what our materialism destroys.”

The same would be true of technology in fashion.  Instead of technology being used to preserve the planet’s resources and invest in a circular economic system, it is used to fuel the “more-is-more” syndrome of things.  With the use of algorithms, fast fashion brands design platforms that track trend data from social networks, combining favorite attributes and images that generate machine-produced fashion – a new iteration of what already exists.  This is where it becomes outrageous.  You buy more things, knowing you can discard to buy more things.  It’s detrimental to the environment and suppresses innovation, creativity, and the art of fashion.

The chapter on AI and the possible apocalypse, titled “Not Quite Boolean”, is one for the war on technology.  The war: humans versus robots.  Will robots replace humans in creating art?  With his philosophical and technical analyses, ReeL challenges your thinking on the future of human culture.  How much will be accepted of machine-like predetermined and patterned creative output versus the human output of art?

ReeL denounces the trickery in art compositions, particularly works of representation, that are trivial, that are there for our entertainment without much meaning, and forgotten over time.  Sound familiar with frivolous fashion trends?  Creating substantive work with meaning and purpose are not frivolous activities.

In the chapter, “End of Historicity”, he writes, “In art we seek to stretch the arc of time, to make paintings for all time and times”.  Creating and preserving fashion as an art stretches the arc of time, asserting its freedom from historical “trend” justification.  There is power through autonomy, through independence of a materialistic fashion system.  We never tire of great fashion; it can sustain time. We quickly tire of trendy, frivolous, unmeaningful pieces.

The systemic injustice to women and people of color in creative sectors like art and fashion is structural.  ReeL claims it goes deep into the structure of our materialistic obsession with things. He writes, “Materialism’s claims to objectivity … masks the violence of its underlying structure and intentions.  This is how systemic racism, sexism, and injustice are hidden … more deeply embedded, for they are masked by their seemingly benign objectivity claiming this is ‘just how things are’”.  ReeL sees this as a “tyranny of false evidence”, cautioning this as a big lie and to be wary of “how things are” and how they have always been.  To right the wrong, he claims that acts of inclusion are not enough; you must dismantle the underlying prejudices.

The intent to talk about this book was not to preach, however, given the structurally related injustices in the industry which have historically been accepted as “how things are”, and based on my own personal experience, I will say this: To move forward, we must eliminate the hierarchical barriers of privilege–every company has them.  Close your eyes, hire and promote people with talent.  When you open your eyes, you’ll see that you are moving people through your company with diverse backgrounds and, mostly, because they have talent.  Their skin color or ethnic makeup won’t matter.

Fashion industry?  Stop “sleeping with the dragon”.

The Author: Erik ReeL is an exhibiting visual artist represented by collections based in Buenos Aires, Berlin, Chicago, Dubai, Frankfurt, Hamburg, Houston, Indianapolis, London, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, New York City, Oakland, Paris, San Diego, San Francisco, Santa Barbara, Santa Fe [NM], Seattle, and Seoul. Public collections include the Morris Graves Museum of Art, Seattle City Light, Museum of Ventura County, Whitman College. For more information see erikreel.com.

The Book: Pterodactyl Cries: Art, Abstraction, and Apocalypse (Centaur, $27.50, 161 pages, 8 ¾ x 5 ¾“ (Digest) Hardcover, ISBN 978-1-7375507-0-9, genre: Art Theory) is available through its distributor.

Rhonda P. Hill

Founder, Publishing Editor