Time Outside of Time


Diana Al-Hadid, at Burlington City Arts, Burlington Vermont

Artists have to find a way to pull the audience in, for only when people come to understand that within a painting or a sculpture they can find a time that is outside of time will they want to keep looking.
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Jed Perl

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My experience is what I agree to attend to. Only those items which I notice shape my mind.
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William James

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The question is not how much time you spend actually looking at the work, but how much it occupies your thought. A limited viewing can lead to a long life span. Indeed, one reason we go back to a work is that it’s not commensurate with what we recalled. We can even be mocked by it. If it’s good, it keeps on.
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Richard Serra

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Work creates its time,
its own time
“gives” content to its time, not “expresses” time.
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Ad Reinhardt

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I want to look at pictures til I drop.
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Klara Sax, installation artist in Don DeLillo‘s novel Underworld

How reassuring it is, after so many years of looking at art, that I am still gloriously susceptible to the mind altering, “time outside of time” powers of great work. Just in the last few weeks it has happened twice, when the visual awe was so profound it moved in on the body too, leaving me knee-weak and hyperventilating. Diana Al-Hadid‘s show in Burlington Vermont was one, and John Walker‘s paintings at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockland Maine was another.

Some would equate this response to the ecstatic experience of religious adepts. Supernatural ecstasy is part of many religious/spiritual traditions, and accounts of what that heightened state brings is very close to my own response. The overlap isn’t surprising. According to Alden Reed in his book, Slow Art, “art came to function as that other realm formerly occupied by ‘spirit.’ ‘Slow art’ is my name for the sacred gaze adapted to modernity.”

Meanwhile the pace of life has shortened our attention spans and flooded us with information and images. Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) presaged our current age when he identified the ephemeral as modernity’s defining feature. Media theorist Jean-Francois Lyotard sees capitalism’s attachment to the motion of goods, information and bodies as a downgrading of stillness.

According to Alden Reed:

The pressures of acceleration created the need for psychological breathers or time outs…occasions to slow one’s tempo became harder to access—like devotional practices requiring viewers to focus intensely on single works over long periods of time. Hence an increased need met decreased opportunities to address that need. Slow art came to supplement older sacred practices by creating social spaces for getting off the train.

As easy as it is for me to blend my experience of art with the spiritual, it isn’t a comfortable melding for others. Art historian Carol Duncan rejects the “smuggling” of religious contemplation back into art. When Bill Viola talks about seeking “another dimension that you just know is there…The quest for connecting with that…is the whole impetus for…my work,” it resonates deeply with me. But many in the mainstream art establishment are fiercely critical of his intentions and his work.

But who wants the job of policing what is purely sacred and strictly secular? Not me. Peter Schjeldahl articulates a position that offers some breathing room:

Don’t rule out the religious sense. It’s what takes over when attention dissolves into selfless, sheerly grateful or terrified apperception. William James: ‘to be as nothing in the floods and waterspouts of God.’ It needn’t entail belief, only a letting-go of unbelief. A free-fall…We return from it with a conviction that whatever occasioned it has inherent value. Without such conviction, life doesn’t work.

My primal advocacy is for an art experience that brings that “time outside of time.” However you get there doesn’t matter. Ride that wave.

2 Comment

  1. I particularly love the Schjeldahl quote.

  2. deborahbarlow says:

    A, It surprised me, coming from a New Yorker writer. So glad you connected with it too.

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