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What Happens When You Look at One Painting for an Hour?

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Fri, Feb 10, 2012 at 11:20 AM

click to enlarge Izhar Patkin's room-size painting The Dead Are Here was the subject of an hourlong meditation - PHOTO BY GENE OGAMI
  • Photo by Gene Ogami
  • Izhar Patkin's room-size painting The Dead Are Here was the subject of an hourlong meditation

Seven years ago, artist Nuttaphol Ma spent three hours staring at a painting he hated. He was working at the Santa Monica Museum of Art and was assigned to stand guard over a particularly vulnerable work. "It was full of things you'd find at Michael's -- lots of glitter, beads, junk," says Ma, whose own work is meticulous and meditative. "I thought it was awful."

The intensity of his reaction surprised him and he thought, "If I have to stand here, I'd better just look at this piece. That's what it's here for." He looked for an hour. Nothing changed. "I told myself, OK, find something you love, and use that as an entry point." He pretended he was rock climbing with his eyes, moving up and down, in and out of the beads and glue and fabric.

"At first, it was like swimming in a sea of trash, going up and down this massive piece," he remembers. Then, an hour and a half in, he saw the reflection of light against a bead. "It reminded me of a water drop off a leaf. I entered the piece there." He began to move his eyes up and down again, this time appreciating the intentional way in which each small piece had been placed. "It was magical, when that shift in perception happened." He didn't actually start to like the painting, but, at the end of the three hours, "The sea of trash had become a sea of coral."

I don't think anyone at Shoshana Wayne Gallery Wednesday night hated Izhar Patkin's massive ink-on-tulle painting The Dead Are Here. But Peter Clothier asked his captive audience to move their eyes slowly up and down the painting's folds, in the same way Ma moved his across the painting he was battling.

click to enlarge Willem de Kooning's "Montauk Highway" - COURTESY LACMA
  • Courtesy LACMA
  • Willem de Kooning's "Montauk Highway"
Clothier, an art writer who describes himself as "a reformed academic" and believes in harmony over headiness, was hosting one of his One Hour, One Painting sessions, in which he guides a group of no more than 20 people through an hourlong meditation on a single artwork. He began these in 1995, after he became concerned that he, like most people, spent more time looking at wall labels than the artwork.

"An hour is not such a terribly long commitment," he thought, and held his first meditation session at LACMA, in front of Willem de Kooning's Montauk Highway, an orange and blue abstraction with wide-open brushstrokes. Since then, he's hosted sessions in front of all sorts of artworks, from minimalist works in which almost nothing is happening to overstuffed ones, like James Ensor's Christ Entering Into Brussels. There's no better or worse kind of painting to stare down, Clothier explains. "It's about clearing the mind out and simply looking at what's there."

He'd been on a multiyear sabbatical from the One Hour, One Painting project, and had just finished his second book, Mind Work, when he went to see Izhar Patkin's show and ran into gallerist Shoshana Wayne. "This would be a great painting for your project," she told him, referring to Patkin's room-sized, curtainlike rendering of a cemetery on a sunny day. He agreed, and last night's session started with Clothier asking participants to let go of any preconceptions.

The subsequent hour involved intermittent eye-opening and eye-closing, a few walks with just your eyes up and down and across the picture plane, and a few actual walks, where participants got up and switched chairs, or turned their chairs toward different walls. Ambient noise from traffic outside and helicopters overhead distracted at times ("Just acknowledge that it's there, and work to remain focused," Clothier advised).

A 2000 article published in Empirical Studies of the Arts reported viewers tended to spend a median of 17 seconds in front of artworks. Last year, in a more guerrilla-style approach, Daily Mail critic Philip Hensher camped out at the Tate and found some viewers looked at contemporary paintings for no more than 5 seconds.

But once you've committed, it's not too hard to keep looking. "That was fast," one woman said after we'd finished. Another wanted to know if anyone else had seen faces in almost every shadow. "I saw them everywhere." Someone else pointed to a shadow she thought resembled two girls reading. After an hour of looking, it's apparently hard to pull yourself away, and some milled around Patkin's work for a good 20 minutes more. The next morning, Clothier blogged that it had been a success. "I'm thinking now of offering more sessions," he wrote.

Clothier's new book is Mind Work: Shedding Delusions on the Path to the Creative Core.

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