DIALOGUE: Peter Clothier

Dialogue with Rene de Loffre

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According to some experts, citizens of the 21st century spend a mere 2 to 17 seconds viewing a painting in a museum. Any cure? Enter Peter Clothier, former dean and director of the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles, and accomplished author of novels, poetry, and critical articles on art. His recent book, titled “Persist: In Praise of the Creative Spirit in a World Gone Mad With Commerce” (2010, Parami Press), elucidates his embrace of the creative process outside the often-frenetic marketplace of the art world. As a Cambridge graduate who also holds a PhD, Clothier was granted immersion in the scholarly world of academia, to eventually become a polymath deeply interested in Buddhist meditation. Making meditation a central part of his creative process 15 years ago motivated him to pioneer his “One Hour/One Painting” concept, encouraging viewers to spend an entire hour gazing at a single painting. This may sound like a tedious undertaking, but Clothier makes it an effortless and engaging exercise, by providing a constant flow of gentle meditative directive dialogue aimed at slowing the viewer’s gaze, so all elements of the painting can be absorbed without preconceptions or expectations. Past paintings he has examined in these sessions have included James Ensor’s 1889 Christ’s Entry into Brussels, David Hockney’s 1991 Almost Like Skiing, and Willem De Kooning’s 1958 painting Montauk Highway, as well as numerous contemporary works, as seen at various LA galleries.

When I caught up with Clothier, it was before a 2014 painting by Roberto Gil de Montes, titled Henry Moore, at Lora Schlesinger Gallery at Bergamot Station, for one of his sessions, followed by a chat on his spacious balcony perched atop the Franklin Hills in Los Angeles.

Rene de Loffre: What got you interested in giving “One Hour/One Painting” sessions?

Peter Clothier: I was still writing art reviews for national magazines at the time-this was back in the mid ‘90s-and began to notice that my viewing of the art I was writing about was more cursory than it should have been. At the same time, I was introduced to meditation, and sat for the first time for a full hour. I put those two things together: One Hour/One Painting. Voila!

RDL: So what is your ideal audience for an “Art of Looking” session? Do people need to come prepared with some experience in meditation?

PC: The guidance of my voice throughout the hour makes the meditative and the contemplative experience both easy and relaxing-though not effortless! It’s hard work for the eyes!

RDL: That’s your secret?

PC: Would I call it a secret? I don’t think so. I have sat through many guided meditations myself in the past 20 years and have learned from the masters. In part it’s the quality of voice-an even tone, words that encourage comfort and relaxation, a call to clear the mind of its usual chatter and debris. In part, I think, it’s the understanding of how the breath can be used as an anchor for attention, and as a way to reduce the stress and tensions we carry around with us most of the time. The tone needs to be invitation rather than instruction.

RDL: How do you talk to people who think your sessions sound New Age-y, or too spiritual for their taste?

PC: It’s such a far cry from either one! This is about the practical, immediate, and physical experience of a work of art. It’s about learning to slow down for long enough to pay attention to what is actually there, on the wall and in front of you.

RDL: I’ve wondered how you see Buddhism in the Western art world?

PC: Our culture has been much influenced by Buddhist thought, at least since the popularization of Buddhist-related teaching in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Well, a good deal before that, if you think back to, say, T.S. Eliot, and a good number of modernist artists in all media. But then the ’60s and ’70s brought us such cultural heroes as Alan Watts and Ram Dass, whose writing proved extraordinarily influential. If you’re so inclined, you can see Buddhism everywhere in the late-20th and early 21st century-in the way painters paint (think Ed Moses, Tom Wudl), musicians compose (John Cage), or poets write (Gary Snyder), and so on.

RDL: Why did you choose Gil de Montes’ Henry Moore painting for the session? Come to think of it, how do you select any of your one-hour paintings?

PC: I’m afraid it’s not a very sophisticated process! I happened to like Henry Moore for a good number of reasons-its color and rhythmic patterns, the complexity and diversity of its images, its humor. But the truth is that important considerations for an “Art of Looking” choice are size and location. Size is important because I’m hoping for a group of twenty to twenty-five participants-so it’s obviously impossible for this many people to be close enough to a small painting for a good look. Location, because ideally I’m looking for a piece that’s installed on an individual wall, with no visual distractions to either side. Then I start thinking about the visual depth and richness of the work, which is certainly there in Gil de Montes’ painting Henry Moore, the artist providing a panoply of forms in his own amazing visual iconography.

RDL: Your interest is primarily focused on art in your writing, I realize writers have much the same demons as artists, but how did this come about?

PC: I started out as a poet, and came to Southern California originally as a professor of Comparative Literature. Once here, I began to look around at what artists were doing and found it more challenging than what writers were doing. My first piece of “art writing” came about as a result of seeing a gallery installation by the artist Gary Lloyd. It involved all kinds of material I would never have associated with art work as I knew it: smears of Vaseline, axe heads protruding from the gallery wall, jars of rather revolting and unidentifiable organic substances, scrawled words. My initial reaction was the obvious, “This is not art.” But then I couldn’t get it out of my head and started to write, as I do when I need to understand a little better what’s going on in my mind.

RDL: How does your established academic scholarship have value for you today?

PC: Oh, it’s in there somewhere, surely, structurally buried in the way I think and perceive and order the world about me, as well as in the residue of accumulated… knowledge from those years. There’s an intellectual discipline I learned that I value to this day-though sometimes I find it standing in the way of the free flow of creativity.

RDL: Doesn’t the act of creating require a dance between uncluttered intuitive takes and intellectualized entries of past experiences and knowledge?

PC: The point I make to those who choose to participate in a “One Hour/One Painting” session (by the way, it’s now called “The Art of Looking”) is that the dance you refer to is a much richer experience once you have really done the “pure looking” part. Opinions, judgments, intellectual associations based on art historical knowledge and familiarity with contemporary theory and practice-these are all important. But they tend to stand between me and the object I’m looking at, distorting it with personal information having nothing to do with art. I like to put them aside until I’m ready.

RDL: All right, one last question and yo
u can concentrate on teatime: What has been the reaction to your book “Persist”?

PC: Mention the book’s subtitle, “In Praise of the Creative Spirit in a World Gone Mad With Commerce,” and the eyes of virtually every artist will light up in recognition. The reaction has been universally gratifying. I think it’s because the essays in the book are so personal, so deeply experienced and felt. We all know how it feels to live in a culture that sets more store by money and name recognition than by the traditional values of art.