Evelyn Reyes: Ritual, Rules, and Abstraction

Evelyn Reyes, Black Carrots, oil pastel on paper, 11" x 17", 2009

Evelyn Reyes, White Carrots, oil pastel on paper, 11" x 17", 2009

Evelyn Reyes, Carrots, graphite and oil pastel on paper, 11" x 17", 2009

My interest is in experience that is wordless and silent, and in the fact that this experience can be expressed for me in art work which is also wordless and silent. It is really wonderful to contemplate the experience and the works.

But with regard to the inner life of each of us it may be of great significance. If we can perceive ourselves in the work - not the work but ourselves when viewing the work then the work is important. If we can know our response, see in ourselves what we have received from a work, that is the way to the understanding of truth and all beauty. - Agnes Martin 


San Francisco-based artist Evelyn Reyes has been diligently creating robust series of minimalist drawings at Creativity Explored for the past 15 years; over this time she has consistently maintained a presence in the contemporary outsider art discourse. Significantly, she was included in the important 2011 traveling exhibition Create, organized by Matthew Higgs of White Columns and Lawrence Rinder of the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, has been exhibited at the Museum of Everything in London, and remains a recurring presence at the Outsider Art Fair.

As “outsiders” have merged with the contemporary art world, works that reflect the direct and authentic consequence of an artist’s way of being are permitted to exist in conversation with contemporary works and concepts devised by mainstream culture in service of a body of work that fits into an ongoing discourse - a growing faith in the agency of the viewer to see the works on either terms, or on their own terms, without having to abandon reverence for the intention or voice of the artist.

Reyes stands to provide an important example of how this confluence can result in something greater than the sum of its parts. There’s now an opportunity for a contemporary art space with a focus on minimalist art to offer Evelyn Reyes a solo exhibition, not only because she is defined by her minimalism more than her outsiderism, but because she exemplifies ideals of reductive abstraction while bringing forth essential insight about its true nature, origins, and purpose as a result of her distinct perspective. Reyes is ritualistic and repetitive to an extreme; to understand this as a creative practice rather than pathology is a paradigm shift that closes the gaps between the artist, her works, and the world she’s in communication with. 

Reyes' placement in the outsider art conversation isn't unwarranted; it's important to recognize that she has arrived at a reductive approach to art-making without any academic familiarity with minimalism. But this ritualistic way of being that is so easily pathologized and misunderstood (especially as it manifest in daily activities), isn't out of place among minimalist artists. Olivia Laing discusses the disciplined nature of Agnes Martin: 

Ironically, Martin’s reclusiveness, her spartan existence, contributed to her growing status as the desert mystic of minimalism, something she simultaneously resisted and fed...Learning to withstand emptiness was her own specialty, her given task. Her years in New Mexico were marked by a profound withdrawal from worldly things, a life of renunciation and restriction that often sounds punishingly masochistic, though Martin insisted the intention was spiritual...over the winter of 1973 she lived off nothing but preserved home-grown tomatoes, walnuts and hard cheese. Another winter it was Knox gelatin mixed with orange juice and bananas.

Evelyn Reyes, Three Orange Carrots, oil pastel on paper, 11" x 17", 2012, all images courtesy Creativity Explored

When viewed in person, Reyes’ remarkable drawings have a striking physicality; they appear labored, with every part of the surface revealing a history. Initially delineated with a straight edge, she continuously emboldens triplet “carrot” forms until the entire oil pastel stick is exhausted on one sheet of paper. While these works are relentlessly repetitive, restrained in palette, and uniformly sized, there’s nothing particularly pristine about them; her evident mark-making calls to mind the painterly brushstrokes and wavering watercolor surfaces within the precision of Agnes Martin’s grids. There arises the notion that Reyes’ drawings aren’t the origin of the forms they depict, but rather forms that are absolute which the methodical process of drawing has made visible. The smudged pastel edges of each shape strive to estimate the true underlying form, whose truth precedes the drawing itself.

This ongoing, extensive series of drawings is the result of a ritualistic process that she engages in with great consistency. Reyes’ ritual, documented by Creativity Explored below, is a highly personal mystery - not a performance, but an ongoing aspect of daily life. It's a regimented routine she engages in not as art or even expression, but clearly as the pursuit of an act she believes in.

Minimalism is very often based on establishing and adhering to a system of rules. Explicit examples are Robert Ryman’s adherence to white or Sol LeWitt’s works as written sets of rules. In a broader sense, this is quite intuitive; to be reductive requires the invention of a set of priorities to define the boundaries of the reduction, or to establish its premise.

The relationship of rules to ritual may be just as intuitive. Rituals like Reyes’, or those associated with religion and spirituality, are series of acts defined by specific directives. An important revelation in considering the comparison of minimalist works to spiritual or religious rituals, is that their intention in employing order is essentially the same, which Reyes seems to demonstrate by using the approach of the former to achieve the results of the latter. Rules become the higher power beyond the self, guiding the acts of the practitioner. For minimalists, the source beyond the self which defines the rules resides in the nature of materials or math, geometry, systems, and patterns.

If we continue to follow Reyes to extend our understanding of minimalism to include an appreciation of rituals as minimalist acts, then we may continue blurring the line between minimalism and spirituality, to discover that artwork closely related to spirituality is inevitably minimalist in its core principles. Minimalism is most obviously comparable to aesthetics and ritual associated with eastern religion, but consider also the process and aesthetics of Navajo weaving, Amish quilts, Shaker furniture (“work as prayer” is beautifully discussed here), or even in the manner Catholic Iconography is controlled by strict systems of mathematics that dictate its geometry and proportions. Walter De Maria's use of geometric systems to seek an aesthetic understanding of the kilometer is not essentially dissimilar in intent from those of Mayan or Aztec calendars that sought an aesthetic understanding of years and eras.

Permitting ourselves to abandon the conclusions about the specific nature of the higher purpose which works like these strive become informed by allows us to consider the raw compulsions and emotions that drive humans to create work of this nature across culture and throughout time. Evelyn Reyes manifests an idiosyncratic impulse toward relevant, ritualistic work in service of a set of convictions. From this perspective we can understand her as the sole practitioner of a personal reductive practice that is an end in itself. For Reyes, a ritualistic life inevitably leads to progressively more reductive work - the distillation of truths, drawings of great conviction, and authenticity worth total devotion.

Evelyn Reyes (b. 1957) is included in the permanent collections of Le MADmusée (Liège, Belgium) and the University of California Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (Berkeley, California). She has exhibited work internationally, most recently at the 2017 Outsider Art Fair and previously in Super Contemporary at Creativity Explored in 2015, Outside In at the Crawford Art Gallery (Cork, Ireland) in 2013, Three Forms at Ampersand International Arts (San Francisco), Exhibition #4 at The Museum of Everything (London) in 2011, and Paper!Awesome! at Baer Ridgeway Exhibitions (San Francisco) in 2010.