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Slow Looking: The Art of Looking At Art by Peter Clothier
Peter Clothier : SLOW LOOKING: Eyes Open

Eyes Open

An excerpt from SLOW LOOKING (Chapter 9) by Peter Clothier

After sitting silently with the breath for a few minutes with eyes closed, cleansing the eyes and clearing the mind of cobwebs to create a new, wide-open space in which to perceive the visual world afresh—after this preliminary effort, the simple experience of opening the eyes can be, well... eye-opening.

The painting that now looms on the wall in front of you is flooded with that pleasing, even wash of light that only the carefully designed lighting of a gallery or museum can provide. Surrounded by nothing but white wall and viewed without the distraction of neighboring objects, the image "pops out" from the space behind it with dramatic intensity. The experience is actually breathtaking. So don't forget to breathe!

Now we have an hour with nothing to do but look at this singular and awesome object in front of us. I ask my group to remind themselves once again that this time is a gift to which they have treated themselves exclusively for this purpose. They have no call to be elsewhere, no reason to feel rushed. I remind them, when those inevitable judgments arise—"I'm wasting my time," "What do I think I'm doing here"!—to respond with the gentle acknowledgment: This is what I have chosen. This is my hour.

My next step, usually, is to invite participants to put their eyes to work as if with powerful lasers and use them to scan the entire surface of the painting, working methodically and rhythmically from side to side and top to bottom. No judgments, no evaluations, no search for meaning. Just pure "looking." That done, I ask them to take a snapshot of what they see, recording the digital data in the brain, the hard drive. Try to get the entire image in focus, I suggest; then press the button. Then close your eyes again at once and consult with the mind's eye to see how effectively it recalls the recorded information. When that's done, try opening them again to compare what the mind's eye has recalled to what is actually there.

This is usually an instructive start, because we learn to our surprise that the mind registers relatively little at first glance—and sometimes what it registers is wrong. Out of sheer habit, we have allowed our eyes to become lazy and content with the first glance. The result is that we think we see much more than we actually do.

So now it's time to get to work. We could start the journey at any point on the painting's surface, really, but I find it useful to start at the edges, where I can set up the parameters. Where does the painting begin, and where does it end? I recommend choosing any one of the corners as a starting place—leaving it to participants to make their choice. I want to open up possibilities, not close them down. There follows a painstakingly slow journey around the entire perimeter. My suggestion is to choose a band of three or four inches at most, depending on the size of the painting, and to make the trip as slow and thorough as possible, so that no single detail is skipped over along the way. Because we all travel at our own rate and some make the circuit faster than others, I encourage a second tour, in the opposite direction, in order to allow plenty of time for everyone to catch up... And, if necessary, a third go-around.

Rather than switch directly back into closed-eye, memory mode at this point, I generally invite viewers to next locate what seems to them to be the center of the painting. This is not necessarily—in fact, it rarely is—the dead, geometric center. It's a combination of visual, intellectual, and emotional perceptions. If you trust the eye, I suggest, it will take you there. And once you find it, come to a rest there for a moment before allowing the eye to explore the territory immediately surrounding it. Then, just as slowly as you can manage, allow the focus to zoom out from that area all the way back to the edges, until the entire surface of the painting is once again in focus. If you pay close enough attention to the eye's work as it goes through this process, you can actually track the physical sensation. It may help to follow the process back and forth a few times, and you'll discover that you are using tiny muscles you may never have noticed before.

And now close your eyes...

This is usually a good moment for a meditative pause, relinquishing the image and allowing it to dissolve as you bring the attention back exclusively to the breath. It's a moment to allow both mind and eye a pleasant respite, a rest to reward them for the hard work done thus far. I take the opportunity to remind the group that silence can be delightful, that the breath can be delicious, and to let them know they have a few minutes now to enjoy the break. Just breathing in and breathing out...

What follows from this point will depend on the particular painting that we're looking at. If the painting is an abstraction—I have worked with everything from de Kooning to Mark Rothko and even with austere, hard-edge abstraction—it's useful to pay attention to the structure, the lines, or implied lines, and areas of color, the way they intersect and inter-relate. (I keep reminding my group to do this with as little judgment as possible: it's about seeing what's there, not deciding whether we like it or not, or whether the painting is a good one or a bad one.) We may get focused on areas where the texture of the applied paint seems important, the evidence—or absence—of brushwork, the painter's hand. We may imagine ourselves as the artist, deep in contemplation of the work in progress, asking herself what opportunities remain to be addressed, what the next mark might be. We may at some point ask ourselves what appears to be the last mark made—and, possibly, which might have been the first. We consider layers of paint, their transparency or opacity, along with any substructures, evidence of preliminary marks or underpainting. Our eyes go searching out "accidents"—drips and smudges, lines gone awry, splashes of color where the artist chose to leave them uncorrected, as evidence of process. And so on. We find out how much there is to see in an abstraction.

Eyes Open

A figurative work will offer different paths to follow: the quality and positioning of images, their relationship to each other and to the painting's "frame"—its edges. A portrait offers a wonderful opportunity to study the ever-fascinating features of a fellow human being's face; the body of a nude invites the eye to explore the infinite, sometimes erotic intricacies of the vehicle in which we are all destined to live out our earthly lives—a creation of extraordinary complexity and efficiency that, when studied in paint, never fails to awe. In a landscape, we may follow the line of a horizon, the jagged procession of trees or mountains in the background, the illusory volume of a house or human presence, the subtleties of shade and color, the whole imagined "world" into which the painting invites us, quotidian or fantastic. We may consider the quality of stillness—or implied movement. We may try to open our minds and hearts to the emotional impact of the painting or its individual parts.

Speaking of the emotions, I will often—during closed eye work—ask my fellow-sitters to take a different tack for a few moments; to suspend the visual work at hand and instead to pay attention to what's happening inside at heart and gut-level, what thoughts, judgments and feelings might be arising from the depths of consciousness. It could be anything from that familiar "I'm bored! I need to get out of here!" to a welling-up of great grief or sadness, a feeling of joyful elation, or a rush of dread or fear. These things come up despite ourselves, and often without our being aware of them, so it's good to make use of this state of more than usually raw awareness to pay attention to them. They, too, are a part of the rich experience of art.

Alternatively, I'll use a time-out of this kind to ask participants to switch their attention to the physical sensations: what ambient sounds might they be hearing at this moment? What bodily discomforts might they be experiencing? Where is the body most comfortable and at rest? I remind them that a part of our purpose is to learn something of the benefits of being present in the here and now. The experience of being present to the painting, and allowing its presence to be felt, offers a glimpse into the possibility of being present to ourselves, at every moment of our lives, and to the infinitude of other objects in our range of vision.

After each meditative pause, we return to our walk-through of the painting, open-eyed again, paying close attention to as yet unexplored areas or details, experimenting with the effect of a shift in focus, or following the progress of a single line as it creates a directional path through the surface. It can be useful to distinguish horizontal elements from vertical or diagonal ones, and to get a sense of the kind of energy such interplays generate. At intervals, I'll pause, return with closed eyes to the breath, and once more test the mind's ability to reconstruct the image. By this time, there should be a growing resource of remembered detail to build on, with the image in the mind's eye more accurately recreating the image on the wall. A series of quick "snapshots" will help, with special attention to particular details. Sometimes, when it seems appropriate, I'll ask the group to trade in that digital camera for a video recorder and take in a whole swath of the painting, slowly, top to bottom or side to side, and then close the eyes and let the replay run. There are an infinite number of approaches, some that will call to us, others not. The painting itself, I find, will guide me.

And always, there is the surprise. When we reach the end of the session, now that we may seem to have exhausted every last detail, I invite a final, closed eye reconstruction of the painting followed by a complete fade-out, a return to total silence, total stillness, and a few more conscious breaths to achieve an inner state of restful awareness. I will usually allow, at this point, for a longer meditative pause before inviting one last, quick look at our painting—this time challenging each individual to find a complete surprise, something that had been simply overlooked before, something that may now seem suddenly important, even vital to the way we see the painting...

And I close with the reminder that there is no end to such surprises; that no matter how well we become acquainted with a painting, there will always be some detail we have not yet noticed, some secret that has not revealed itself to us until this moment. No matter how slow the looking, a good painting will always provide us with a new and challenging adventure.

"I shut my eyes in order to see." — Paul Gauguin

Next: The History of SLOW LOOKING »

© 2013 Peter Clothier. All rights reserved.

Peter ClothierPeter Clothier writes chiefly about art and artists in Southern California. He has published widely in national magazines, and is the author of David Hockney in the Abbeville Modern Masters series. More »

Updated 7/25/15