Courtesy La Louver GalleryFrom three neatly bent rows of stiff white chairs -- folding-style chairs with thin, loud vinyl squish pads -- in a clean white room at the top of Venice's L.A. Louver Gallery, 25 white people face Twin (#4-1998), Tony Berlant's found-metal collage on plywood, hung way up high. For the next 60 minutes, poetnovelistart critic Peter Clothier will attempt to exorcise our tensions and pretensions and apprehensions, to cleanse our visual palates with simple relaxation techniques intended to forge a direct path from observation to pleasure.
Berlant's work is generally classified as Lyrical Abstrac-tionist by those who need, generally for financial gain, to classify artwork: Abstract Expressionism minus surface aggression. Berlant makes things out of paint and metal and wood and various connecting tissues. His work is bold and decisive, the surfaces nonconfrontational yet interesting enough to explore.
"Relax your eyes. Allow your eyes simply to absorb. To absorb without judgment, without question."
The notion of looking at a non-cathode image for an hour is not a new one, though neither is it common among Americans who are not on mushrooms. When we undertake such a project, referring to it as "meditation" tends to decrease the likelihood of our being arrested: Human staring at humanity reflected in artwork is considered reasonable; human staring at himself in storefront window is considered dangerous. So L.A. Louver has commissioned Mr. Clothier's considerable insights and lulling abilities into this "One Hour/One Painting" series, every other Tuesday evening through the end of March, where closet contemplators with 25 bucks can come out and stare in semipublic.
"Feel the delight of a single breath . . . just see and breathe . . . find a place where your eye can rest. Find a starting place for yourself, and from your starting point, make your own journey around the painting . . ."
From the back of the room, my journey takes me from the image as one image -- a murky thumbprint landscaped by a midnight sky of falling stars, maybe -- into a series of location-specific portraits and caricatures: Koko the Clown, Dick Clark, George Washington, Margaret Dumont, Casper the Friendly Ghost, Arnie Miller (one of my father's friends) circa 1975, Mr. Bill, Mary Amico (early crush) (also circa 1975) and the cover of Miles Davis' Bitches Brew. But why stop there? I head on out into the audience of inordinately healthy-looking, middle-aged mostly women, and something from earlier in the day comes back. (Tom -- this guy Tom -- and I were talking about attraction. I brought up the zany old hearty old bar quip you still see on the occasional bumper or license-plate frame: "No one's ugly after 2 a.m." For me, artgazing shares with alcohol a certain intoxication: Women become more attractive when they're looking at art.) So now I'm looking at the painting and then looking at all these women who couldn't have possibly been so lovely just half an hour ago. Even the backs of their heads. Up at the painting, back to the heads, up at the painting, back to the heads. (I wonder what ever happened to Mary Amico.)
And then back to the wholeness of the painting, where now some sort of skygod has emerged from the upper right corner and is trying to pick up on what's become some sort of watergoddess in the lower left. I wonder how well this would work with some hard-edged minimalism -- a big orange Ellsworth Kelly square or a big blue John McCracken cube or slab. Minimalism in the static arts feels entirely less effective than in the time arts, where composers and directors have the option to mess with the whole Y-axis of events -- chord changes or light changes or whatever -- while the rhythm, the movement along the X-axis, remains a drone or an extended pause. In the static arts, it is up to the observer to create the Y-axis -- to respond to his own series of responses and juxtapose that against the simple drone of the object -- and in so doing create a customized art piece for whatever length of time one desires. So hanging one big orange square on or leaning one blue slab against the wall one time is one thing; making the same thing over and over again is another thing altogether. And that other thing is not called art; it's called marketing.
IN DESCRIBING THE IMPENDINGNESS OF "ONE HOUR/ One Painting," Clothier calls the process "a challenge to all those who normally spend no more than 10 seconds in front of any given painting." Ten seconds seems like long enough to decide if a piece of art has something to say -- sort of an opening paragraph -- but if the paragraph is interesting and we resolve to read on, there are no rules of attention beyond gallery hours: At the Borofsky retrospective at the T.C. in '86, for example, I sat on the floor beside the basketball court for half an hour or so, watching the kids shoot hoops from the museum floor. Could've sat there for the rest of my life, probably, if David Geffen hadn't felt the need to slap his name on it when he bought the joint in 1996, thus permanently replacing the context of community with that of corporate write-off. That was when I pretty much decided that art was religion enough for me.
"Always come back to the breath," says Clothier. "Allow the painting to be completely what it is. Now close your eyes, and get ready to take this picture home with you."
Something snaps back to normal -- permission granted to continue our pursuits of heart attacks and conformity -- and several participants fess up to failure in losing their focus:
"In the middle," says one, "I saw a dog, a child and a rabbit. And I couldn't leave that spot."
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"I saw the dog. And a ball and a seal."
"And a seahorse."
Someone else recommends we try doing the same exercise with the side of a car. Any car.
I wonder what's become of Mary Amico.