Slow Looking

Review by Christina Catherine Martinez



The other night in Los Angeles, Dave Hickey delivered some gentle advice: “Approach a work of art softly, as you would a child, or a horse. Because they are mute and words can hurt them.” I came at this book softly, heart unlocked, earnestly open to alternatives from an admittedly exhausting proclivity for coming at works of art with farouche side-eye, or making full speed beelines with violent suspicion, helicoptering fists.

Slow Looking proposes what Peter Clothier has termed “One Hour / One Painting©” sessions, which involve prolonged, focused, meditation on a single object, presumably one that hangs on the wall.  For him, it is a marriage of the personal and the professional; a meditation practice he claims saved his life (though he declines to say from what; only that he “soon discovered the magic actually did work”) and an art writing practice. He has led many neophyte group sessions in temperature-regulated museums and galleries around the world.  “It would be nice of course” he says, “if we could all sit perfectly still on the floor with crossed legs and backs” but as he himself meditates in a chair, it is all well for the rest of us too. The result, while it sounds very nice, could not succor me to actually finish the book.


On the teachings of the dharma, Clothier admits “If I do not always succeed, it is surely because the mind is weak and not because the principles are faulty.” But this first-person, present-tense feels thin throughout; the second-person looms just beyond with quiet, Gladwell-ian patronization. In the chapter on keeping a straight back, Clothier details the 30-plus minutes he spends every morning focusing on the spine, and “by the time the harp tones on my iPhone sound, I am thoroughly energized and feeling more in tune with myself.” The message is innocuous as a bowl of cream, but phrases like this put me on edge. I don’t think this book is for me, or anyone who has to catch a bus at 6am Monday through Friday.


Perhaps my impatience with this book only proves how much I stand to benefit from it. I should work on my breath. I should improve my posture. I do yoga once in awhile. But bliss, I follow her elsewhere: throwing down the Amex on a pan-Asian-fuck-it-feast delivered piping hot to my door by a Members Only’d young man putting toward lukewarm destiny in a pearlescent blue ’94 Toyota Tercel, for example.

Silence and stillness are just that. I politely decline to luxuriate in “that pleasing, even wash of light that only the carefully-designed lighting of a gallery or museum can provide.”


I do not cherry-pick at the religion orchard.


I did reach transcendence, once.


I found myself the only client at a strip-mall salon in West Oakland, blowing bubbles in my iced coffee and watching One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest on the flat-screen TV below a shelf of potted peperomias. I was luxuriating; even though I could only afford a polish change and not a full pedicure. I had picked a bright, flat blue from the neat rows of spice-racked polishes by the door, the color of those cheap PaperMate ballpoint pens that fall victim to the undersides of car seats and the depths of crumb-lined purses. It was a pleasing, even wash of color. The woman who had been bent over my feet, talking only to her coworkers suddenly looked up and addressed me in English: “this color looks so beautiful on you!” I turned the bottle over so I could remember the name of the it for next time. In teeny letters above the barcode label it read: Blue Collar.



Peter Clothier, Slow Looking, (CreateSpace, 2012)


Image: Cover of Slow Looking