PETER CLOTHIER

ON LEARNING TO GO DOWN INSIDE

 

 

 

The past five years have seen a major shift in the way I look at art. I was brought up trusting only what my head could comfortably process, what my intellect could grasp and verify, and what my aesthetic judgment could approve. The little I knew about the visual arts I learned in the school that trained my mind in the approved academic manner. One of my lasting painful memories is being ordered by the irate headmaster of my public (read "private") English boarding school to remove from the end-of-term prize desk the books I had selected as a sixth form prizewinner--"trash" that included James Joyce's Ulysses and the Skira Picasso.

Picasso was still about as far as I had progressed by the time I arrived in Los Angeles fifteen years later, in 1969. Introduced to the contemporary art scene here by the woman who was soon to become my wife, I was initially astounded by what I saw. The first time I put pen to paper to write about art was after a visit to the Orlando Gallery in the San Fernando Valley. The Orlando partners at the time were showing Gary Lloyd, whose vaseline-smeared books, slime-filled jars, and axes smashed into the gallery walls left me appalled and furiously debating in my mind what outrageous junk these frauds were trying to pass off on me as art. The only way for me to deal with turmoil such as this was to get it all down on paper, and the result was a thirty page poem--I was a poet in those days--which set out to re-visit Lloyd's images in the language of my own experience.

I judge that to have been a good start, because the non-discursive nature of poetry required that I listen more to my intuitive than to my rational self. And when the poem fell into the artist's hands he wanted me to join him in making it into a book. The object that resulted weighed a good ten pounds. It had an axe handle spine, and the galvinized steel front and back covers were pitted with blows from the reverse end of an axe head. In between, silk-screened with text, there were pages of felt, pages of cork paper encased in steel mesh, pages ripped from a current volume of "Jane's Fighting Ships," and pages of heavily layered, stapled, grease-proof paper sandwiching thick globs of vaseline. We called the book Bob Went Home. It had to do with our common experience of boyhood and manhood, and the scars of each. It had to do with mess and neatness, with clarity and confusion, vulnerability and violence, with blood and sperm, and with the terrible, often destructive male preoccupation with strength and power.

So it was with my first effort at "writing about art," a messy, creative business, filled with self-revelation. But soon enough I was tempted down the other path, the one that led to neatly ordered prose and rational thought. It appealed to the critic in me--the one who has always accompanied me, sitting on my shoulder, carping about this and that, and making me tremble lest I put a word wrong or misstate an opinion. He loved it because here I was, his mirror: the critic. I was also encouraged along this path by the art of the time.

Conceptual art was the perfect trap because it invited me to get involved first and foremost in ideas! My head was delighted, and I felt comfortably at home, since this was precisely what my education had trained me for. Analysis! Argument! Assessment! Enlightenment! Evaluation!--though truth to tell, I always felt more than a little uncomfortable with this last part, which involved more sticking out of the proverbial neck than I was ready for.

Before I knew it, twenty years had passed and I had a respectable fifteen-page, single-spaced resumé of reviews and articles published in national magazines, and of catalogue introductions for museums and galleries around the country.

Yet I accepted as a fact of life that it was hard to write about art. It was a constant battle to hone my thoughts into elegant, exacting prose which said exactly what I meant it to, no more nor less. The thing I feared most was saying anything in public that would make one whit less than good, rational, and logically defensible sense, anything that might make me look stupid or uninformed, anything that might strike others as foolish and embarrass me. Somewhere along the line I lost touch with the genial shamelessness of Bob Went Home. What I put out had to be perfect, and make perfect sense.

What did it take to learn to stop making sense? To realize that my mind had been running on a single cylinder for a good part of my adulthood--not to mention what I thought of as my professional career? Life has a way of presenting us with its lessons in the least palatable form. For me, it was the occurrence of a disastrous illness in the family, in the course of which I was advised by health care professionals that the best way for me to help was to "work on myself."

Work on myself! I had deeply conflicted thoughts about the prospect. On the one hand, I had truly believed in the Socratic injunction to Know Thyself. The best works of art and writing, I was convinced, was mined from deep inside. Bob Went Home was an example of what I myself could find on those rare occasions I allowed myself to look. On the other hand, though, I was skeptical of what I knew of the techniques of-self-exploration to the point of indignant outrage. Psychotherapy, I always judged, was indulgent twaddle. The human potential movement, rich in self discovery, had aroused my curiosity back in the early seventies--but only long enough to dismiss it with the contempt and wrath in which I had learned to wrap my fears. Even meditation, as a way of going inside, I judged to be alien to my culture, a useless "contemplation of the navel" which led to nothing but deplorable self-gratification.

Heavy judgments, then, concealing heavy fears. I think that had I approached it a little at a time, I might never have broken through those prejudices. As it happened, life had a different plan. Through a series of absolutely non-accidental accidents, I tripped in 1992 into a men's initiatory weekend which plunged me so precipitously into the depths of my own inner darkness that I never had time for circumspection or intellectual objection. It was a gift which came in anything but attractive wrapping, but which opened the door to vast reaches of the human experience which had gone severely under-utilized until that time in both my art writing and my own creative work.

I've described the weekend elsewhere as a "boot camp for the heart." Like all too many others of my sex--though let's not lay this exclusively at men's door --I had been trained to understand from boyhood that feelings were to be supressed and outgrown somewhere along the road to manhood. And not only the negative feelings: A strong man showed no fear or pain, of course, and kept his anger to himself until pushed beyond reasonable tolerance. But neither did he show love or joy. In art and writing, as I understand it now, this translated into the obsession with form, the so-called "aesthetic distance" required by modernist dogma. Reaching beyond it into emotional awareness was a risk that offered an enormous added wealth of understanding. For three years I willingly exposed myself to a continuing apprenticeship in the exploration of this terra incognita. There, as the saying goes, be monsters. I learned to lure them from the shadows of their den into the daylight where I finally could see them.

The experience led me, in 1995, to a second boot camp, whose training was even more humbling and profound than the last. I thought of this one as boot camp for the soul. A week of meditation and mostly silent mindfulness, it allowed no distractions from the task of going down inside. Following the example of those ancient desert fathers, it required a descent into the cave of isolation and sensual deprivation where there was nothing further to encounter than the self, with all its insecurities and weaknesses, and nothing to achieve but to transcend it. It required the body to yield up its most intimate and painful secrets in the interest of surrendering its heavy, quotidian materiality to the kind of infinite expansiveness glimpsed, in my experience, only in rare and powerful moments of meditation.

Heart, soul, and body, then. If intellect was the single, all-too faulty cylinder on which I chugged along for the majority of my life as a writer and a human being, these are the other three which I'm now working to rennovate and put to use. There's a long path ahead, but there's also a good deal of ground covered. It's what I believe I found a glimpse of, perhaps without knowing it, all those years ago in Bob Went Home. It's what I'm looking for in my gallery rounds today. It's what I want to write about, and share with those around me in the workshops that I teach. Heart, soul and body. These three need my kind attention and care. I try to listen with less blind faith to the voice in my head -- the voice of the critic, the skeptic, and analyst. It needs less of my time these days, and in any case it has been well trained to take care of itself.