Would you describe your museum-going habits as immersive or cursory? Are you checking things off your list as you rush through the galleries or resting on a bench to stroke your chin while contemplating the self-mythologizing efforts of artists?
Described as "an experiment"—in contrast to an exhibit, per se—"Your Mind, This Moment: art and the practice of attention" attempts to harness your inner sense of peacefulness. Of course, therein lies an implicit challenge: it's something of a test.
Turn your gadgets off and all you'll be left with is art. Art and the sound of your monkey brain screaming for attention. If you're an employee of Salesforce or SAP, you probably have a head start over the rest of us. Several companies in Silicon Valley have already incorporated everyday mindfulness into the workday. A mindful employee is a productive employee! And, for this experiment, members of the American Leadership Forum-Silicon Valley participated in a "prototype" or first iteration. It's their initial feedback that's incorporated into the title graphics at the entrance of the show.
This inevitable overlap of art and commerce notwithstanding, any novice intent on seeing (not merely looking at) a painting will have the help of guided meditations. Four local meditation experts have pre-recorded soothing suggestions for beginning a practice of mindfulness. You can sample them ahead of a visit on SJMA's website too. One of them—"Breathing with the Rose" by Amari Romero-Thomas—is specifically tied to Andrea Ackerman's Rose Breathing, 2003, a 3D animation loop that restarts every 34 seconds. Ackerman enlarges the rose to elephantine proportions, then ascribes a breathing motion to its pale pink petals. We watch them expand and contract, over and over, until the rose takes on the quality of some strange animal opening and closing an unidentifiable orifice.
You may be asking yourself: Is that all there is? Contemplation as an end to itself? It's something more than that, even if that something remains grandiose and ineffable. The curator is encouraging a return to an age without a constant set of distractions. "Your Mind, This Moment" reminds us to fully engage with what we are looking at. The practice of attention broadens the capacity of our inner viewfinder. That's what allows you to fall in love with the painted details made by one specific hand. It is the beginning of a journey, an artistic odyssey, whereupon a work of art irrevocably alters the way you see the world, if, that is, the mind can stay within the moment.
Paintings, years, museums and cities apart, have begged me to wrest them from the wall so that I could take them home. Inside the Legion of Honor, the sight of Peapods and Insects by Jan van Kessel II still thrills me with its green microcosm of creeping things. At the Art Institute of Chicago, the woman draped in burnt orange from Joseph Stella's A Vision transfixed me with her dreaming face. Or standing in front of Picasso's Boy Leading a Horse at the Seattle Art Museum, admiring the depiction of self-confidence, an artist with invisible reins magically in command of his medium.
At "Your Mind, This Moment," it was Eric Fischl's watercolor Untitled, 2001. In the center of the gallery, a dozen Persian rugs jut up against each other to dampen sound, to inspire a sense of coziness. Chairs face out in every direction toward the walls. You're meant to settle in for the duration. On that day, a rainy weekday afternoon, Fischl's diluted figures, though faceless, seemed alive enough to step out of their frame and onto the floor in front of me. A man carries an unconscious woman (is she dead or merely asleep?) toward the viewer. They are characters from a forgotten myth, the purest distillation of the human form, all sinew and muscle. With only two bold colors, he's painted a moving reverie on loss.
The experiment is now complete. It's up to you and your mind to figure out the results.
Your Mind, This Moment
Thru Aug 27, $10
San Jose Museum of Art