When the koto – a stringed musical instrument – was introduced to Japan from China (hundreds of years ago), it was immediately embraced by Buddhist monks. They were not especially musically inclined, however. They realized that mastering the koto took immense self-awareness and self-discipline and that learning this instrument would have a beneficial training effect – mastering the koto would mean the greater development of the types of skills they sought for their type of ascetic yet worldly-engaged lifestyle. Looking at the work of Peter Dreher at Koenig and Clinton, my first thought was that his daily effort to paint the same empty glass, day in and day out, follows in this type of tradition. He has been painting the same glass every day for nigh 40 years now. Usually artists paint to represent something or they paint to express or demonstrate an inner state or situation. Dreher’s work seems to fit into another category completely.
I guess the significance of the work could be in the fact that just by the artist representing the same object every day, we, the viewers of the work, have to focus on what is NOT being conveyed. These individual glasses do not measure or record inner growth or development. They do not express the inner state of the artist at the time of the painting. If one really wants to be quite frank, one could say that, to the viewer, they just really record the continued existence of Peter Dreher. So in painting the same benign object every day, is Dreher trying to deliberately lose himself in a process totally disconnected from himself?
Others who have written about Dreher say that he is trying to see the same thing in a fresh manner each day. This interpretation also seems to work. Each day we tend to see the same things and the world slowly disappears to us through too much familiarity. It could be that Dreher challenges himself, each day, to be engaged in as direct a manner as possible with the objects of the world around him. This reminds me of a quote by Teilhard de Chardin: “Throughout my life, by means of my life, the world has little by little caught fire in my sight until, aflame all around me, it has become almost luminous from within…the diaphany of the divine at the heart of a universe on fire.” In a similar way, Dreher seems to be painting the same image in an attempt to make the outer world more luminous each day than less luminous.
A big question becomes, therefore, is this really a random object Dreher is painting? Shouldn’t we think about the fact that he’s painting a glass especially since a glass contains several features that make it perfect for this type of exercise? For instance, a glass not only is transparent, but it can reflect its surroundings and it also reveals itself as a substantial object. It’s something real that allows one to look through it as well as observe reflections on it. So every day that Dreher paints this glass, he is not really painting a glass – he is painting the limits of perceived reality. Each painting becomes a daily contemplation of how light reveals, penetrates and is reflected. Each painting of the glass is like an exercise in philosophical epistemology (theory of knowledge). Furthermore, we cannot discount the fact that the glass assists in the sustenance of human life – it has a quite mundane but essential function in each of our lives. So the glass as an aid to the daily survival of Dreher combines with Dreher’s need to keenly perceive the ‘universe on fire’ daily and perhaps this is de rigueur for the next step, looking inside of ourselves with greater confidence and vision. Perhaps the more one reflects on the limits of what can be perceived, the next logical step is to look inside.
Actually, I feel an affinity to Dreher. I often pick art to write about primarily because I really don’t understand it upon first view. I began my own little ‘art blog’ because it began to bother me that I would go to a gallery and just vaguely understand a piece or realize that a piece ‘appealed’ to me for superficial reasons. It dawned on me that all of us do this too much each day. We allow the world to engage us on a surface level and do not take the invitation to take the time to dive deeper – and this invitation is always proffered. Writing these reviews has become an exercise for me to dig deeper every time I come across a piece or a body or work by an artist which seems to possess much more that we might glean from a superficial perusal. I feel that if the artist has taken his/her process seriously enough, and has put the time into the creation of something new and potentially transformative, I ‘owe it’ to the artist (and myself) to really ‘see’ his/her work, or at least to struggle with it on a meaningful level.
What’s shocking to me is that nobody really pushes us to dig deeper; we don’t push each other to do this. So to a great extent I feel I understand Dreher’s hardcore approach to seeing reality is also an invitation (or push) to us to begin our own hardcore processes. Basically Dreher invites each of us to engage the world more deeply – to see it and feel it beyond the level of routine. Even if we are forced into a routine, there is always so much more we can draw from the experience if we make an effort that few, unfortunately, seem to make.
PETER DREHER: DAY BY DAY, GOOD DAY
APRIL 17 – MAY 24TH 2014
459 WEST 19TH STREET
Writing by Daniel Gauss
Photographs courtesy of the Gallery and the Artist