We had a very lovely "One Hour/One Painting" session at Laguna Art Museum yesterday afternoon. We sat for our hour with David Ligare's big painting, "Rock" (2012, 60" x 80")--an ideal subject, it turned out, with far more detail to contemplate than could possibly have been exhausted in the single hour. It was a richly rewarding experience, and one that every one of the 20 - 25 participants (I did not do an exact head count, and forgot to ask the museum staff to take pictures) seemed to enjoy. There was warm, genuine enthusiasm in the Q & A that followed, some great questions, and good feedback.
I have been offering these sessions for some twenty years now, and have grown quite comfortable with the process. For those who have not joined me, it's an exercise in looking at an art work that involves a combination of two ancient, time-tested skills: meditation and contemplation. In meditation, the gaze is inward--a processing and digestion of external information, and an opportunity to relax and bring the mind back into a state of focus and concentration. In contemplation, the gaze is outward, toward the object, intense, and consciously sustained. For centuries it has been used as a spiritual practice, a way to contemplate the cross, for example, or the image of a saint.
In this light, "One Hour/One Painting" is about the aesthetic experience, yes. We tend, for the most part, even as art lovers, to look only glancingly at paintings in museums and galleries and, as I always point out in these sessions, are likely to spend more time with the wall label than with the painting itself. We end up seeing, not the painting, but an object transformed by our own prior knowledge and judgments, our likes and dislikes, our assumptions about "good" art, and what it should look like. We rarely take the time to suspend all this baggage and look at what's actually there, in front of our eyes.
But these sessions, I like to think, involve more than just looking. I see them also as spiritual exercises, taking us for a short while out of the mundane experience of our daily lives and into the realm of the numinous, of "pure mind," where the suspension of normal perception and quotidian concerns allows us the brief experience of what, for want of a better term, I'll call bliss. If, in my "One Hour/One Painting" sessions, I can "teach" a way into this experience, I feel I have done something of value--a great personal satisfaction as well as a welcome practical outcome for the discipline and work that goes into a daily meditation practice. For this, I'm deeply grateful.
Thanks to David Ligare, for providing us with so beautiful an object of contemplation. He spent many more hours with it, in the studio, than we did on a Sunday afternoon in the museum. His was the work. Ours, the pleasure.