Pair Pursues the Practice of Practice
February 1985 . The Neighbor . Page 6
By James Hunt Miller
The nearer your destination, The more youre slip-sliding away. Paul Simon
Photo by Jacqueline Moreau
Friends and philosophers Graham Conroy (left) and Rex Amos carry on their unflagging and more than slightly whimsical campaign for the theory they created. They have adopted a Sartre quote which says, The object of life is not to succeed but to continue to fail in good spirits.
Friends for nearly 25 years, they even look somewhat alike-both gaunt, gray-beardedand dandy dressed; both rabbinical, freudish and elfin all at once. They laugh a lot and wear different hats and play like kids. One is preparing to commence his seventh decade, the other his sixth. They are always commencing. They are preliminists. Rex Amos, the one with the rounder face, is one of the great unnoted artists, according to some. He was profiled recently in Jonathan Nicholas's column when he took his first job in 25 years, working as a book sitter Friday afternoons at Thurman Street Bookseller. He was "gloriously jobless" all that time, practicing his seminal art, mostly earlier sculptural assemblages from found objects ("junk sculpture") and late collages. The pieces fill the walls of the comfortable house that he shares with his wife Diane, and his mother and brother. "Some of it is 20 years old and more, pretty dear to me. I couldn't sell it for what it's worth." Older, less-favored or incomplete works and potential art clutter the second floor studio and spacious attic. Rex is "founder...father...fountainhead of preliminism."
His buddy, the one with the more angular face, is Graham Conroy, D. Prelim., professor at Portland State University and chief apologist for preliminism. A sign on his office door indicates that he is a broker of reality-"Realitor." Many years after graduating from Lincoln High School he returned, decked with degrees, to teach in the same rooms.
Preliminism, "the theory and practice of practice," is a new (b. 1965) art philosophy from which nothing follows. Nothing ever will follow, because "everything precedes itself.., there are no conclusions to be reached."
In preliminism, process, prelude and prologue are everything. Beginnings are perpetual. Perfection is a mirage, attainment is monotonous and anticlimactic. "Everything is over before it begins." Hence, "Practice makes practice." "Preliminism is never having to say, 'I'm finished'...It is a philosophy particularly adaptable to art because the artist continues to improve and to begin again," says Graham. "When you say, 'I am,' so many changes are happening atomically that you aren't," says Rex. Corollary: "You never step in the same stream once."
Preliminism was named and conceived by Rex in the early 1960s. The birth, on Columbus Day, 1965, was attended by Doctor Conroy, professor of aesthetics. The initial preliminist observations were recorded in a small notebook. The notebook was washed with Rex's shirt. One word remained legible, "Nothing." Thus, it is said that preliminist beginnings are even more remote in "prior logic" than "Pascal's Pensees," a book that never got beyond the notes.
One day when Graham heard Rex making a deal with another artist, he said, "You artists can always trade your work, but what can a poor philosopher do? You can't give a philosophy away!" Whereupon Amos saith, "Take preliminism. it's yours." Graham claims that preliminism is the only philosophy to have been exchanged by gift.
Page 7 - February 1985 -The Neighbor
Graham will be taking preliminism to Louisville this month, where he will present a paper to the Joint Meeting of the Society for American Studies and the American Society for Pop Culture. "This is serious, but they asked a bunch of wackos down there, too, so we'll fit right in." He's been practicing by wearing a suit with a Louisville label that he found in a second-hand store recently. He will hand out "practice preliminism" buttons. He may have to get some more bumper stickers printed.
Graham teaches some preliminism in his aesthetics classes. "My students think I'm a madman." He tells them that preliminism is a whole new untracked area, outside of metaphysics. It's distinct from, but compatible with pataphysics. Pataphysics, by the way, "differs from metaphysics in the same way that metaphysics differs from physics in one direction or the other," according to the founder of pataphysics, Alfred Jarry. "Metaphysics asks what are first things, while preliminism asks what does it mean to be first," according to Graham.
Graham plans to take the summer off and write about preliminism. Of course, there could be no unified or systematic philosophy of preliminism. It is an eclectic philosophy of play and paradox. It is partly nihilistic. It has a predilection for appropriating neologistic statements, like this one from Dwight Eisenhower, "Things are more the way they are today than they ever were before." Rex and Graham like to say "Preliminisn't." It is a practice that undoes linear time, rejects institutional values and pricks pomposity. "Preliminism is never having to say you're number one.
The inclusion of humor and the absence of a weighty tome (there is a short manifesto) should not be mistaken for a lack of substance. The substance is in the process.
Graham and Rex practice preliminism where "life is art and it's in the world of art that philosophies of living abound." And the preliminists have bounded many other art "isms:" Retractionism: The creation of Portland writer Rick Rubin ("We absorbed it immediately. . . He had a manifesto that gave us all these sayings."); Approximatism: the creation of PSU professor Jack Cooper ("We absorbed that, too."); and Impossiblism ("We converted them."). This demonstrates accretionism (not to be confused with syncretism), a major aspect of preliminism.
Feuded with ultimists
A protracted dialectic with the Berkeley Ultimists, they related, involved broadsides, vandal visitations and the besmirchment of the participants' banners, all noted in the San Franciscan press. "We knew that ultimism would fail, ultimately, and the ultimists have succumbed...at least, we haven't heard from them since we sent them the Code to Preliminism."
The hijinks, part concept art, part Animal House, were recalled with great good humor by Amos and Conroy. They may be working along the same lines as Norman Cousins, Bud Clark and Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. They visited with the Dalai Lama briefly in Seaside, and they admired the clarity and heartiness of his laughter.
The preliminists gave a demonstration of the practice of practice. A preliminist marching band, Seagram's Seven, played for the Portland Thunderbirds semi-pro football team at the Civic Stadium. John Wendeborn, Laverne Krause and Carl Smith were other participants. In the spirit of practice, each player played his own tune, marched to his own time, in his own direction. No one played the instrument they brought with them. Rex, an ex-drummer, played the trombone. Graham, who had brought a trumpet, played concert slide whistle and coronet. The fans loved them. They were invited back for next season. Ah, but there was no next season for Seagrams Seven.
Claim historic adherents
The preliminists do just a little proselytizing. Their materials claim that Jesus, Sisyphus, Shakespeare, Picasso and Henry Miller are preliminist sympathizers. They've done shows at Portland Center for the Visual Arts and Portland Art Museum, but appearances have been rare. Sometimes they take preliminism to preliminists who are unaware of preliminism: Bud Clark, who knows how to have fun; Peter Schickele (P.D.Q. Bach), who was born some time after he died; and Jules Feiffer, the cartoonist, who has worn the "LOSE" button Rex created during Jerry Ford's "WIN" campaign. Clark passed on some preliminist paraphernalia to Johnny Carson when he appeared as a guest last fall.
But for preliminism to succeed would be an unseemly paradox. One of the principle theorems of preliminism is "Failure as Positive Process or Creative Failure." Sartre said, "The object of life is not to succeed, but to continue to fail in good spirits." Rex says, "What, me fail? Big deal. I'm only dying." Besides, like Krishnamurti, the preliminists want no popular success with its sycophants. Preliminism must always be becoming, always nascent, always underground. Rex is happy that his sculpture, "The Book of the Dead," was rejected for a Fountain Gallery show featuring rejects from other galleries.
Would success spoil the preliminists? Unveiled recently above the bar at McMenamin's is a large painting, "The Dance of Life," one of Rex's older pieces. He goes to McMenamin's to practice being hung over and appreciated. It's only another beginning.
As these two guys talk about preliminism, waving hands about, laughing, telling stories in turn and then at once but always together, "recognizing simplicity, savoring absurdity," it is plain that good spirits do accompany this philosophy of failure. They said, "When parting, it is common to say, 'Later, see ya later.' A preliminist says, 'Earlier, see ya earlier.'"