Sunday, 20 June 2010

Chuck Close Prints: Process and Collaboration

It seems like most of what we can read about artists in labels and in articles and reviews focuses on their biography, their philosophical or spiritual positions about life, or the techniques they use to make art. This information is great for locating a work of art within contemporary history and for understanding how, and sometimes why, it got to look the way it does. But I often find myself puzzled as to why I should care about the object, not exactly what it means, but what it might mean to me (a label telling me it is the most beautiful or most important anything does not do the trick.) I’m not sure that being different, strange, or challenging should be enough to create interest or value in an art work even though these characteristics can often result in a pleasurable experience and possibly enliven a routine existence

 Chuck Close, Self-Portrait, 2000. 111-color silk screen, 65 1/2 x 54 inches, edition of 80. Brand XEditions, printer (Robert Blanton, Thomas Little). Pace Editions, Inc., New York, publisher. Courtesy of the artist and Pace Editions, Inc. (PRNewsFoto/Corcoran Gallery of Art)

I’ve been thinking about this since we were in Scottsdale and Phoenix for a couple of days in April and we saw the exhibition of prints by Chuck Close - Chuck Close: Process and Collaboration - at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art. The exhibitions was organized by the Blaffer Gallery at the University of Houston in 2003 and so far has traveled to fifteen locations in the U.S. It will next be at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, DC, starting this July. (Although I had heard of the exhibition, I had no idea in Scottsdale that the show had been traveling so long and at so many sites; it might be a record for a print exhibition, since normally the venues for print shows are very limited in order to protect the light-sensitive objects. I did not notice that the paper or the colors had been affected by the long tour. In fact, the show seemed quite fresh.)

Chuck Close seems very obvious in some ways. All his works are portraits, close up full-frontal faces of his friends, family and acquaintances, many of whom are at least as famous as he is - Philip Glass, John Chamberlain, Alex Katz, Lucas Samaras. His methods and techniques are vastly diverse and the exhibition described, explained, and demonstrated them to reveal the secrets and incredibly complex processes involved in getting the prints to look as they do. The unifying characteristic of his work is his use of a grid system to transfer a smaller image, usually a photograph, to a larger scale. He draws a grid over the smaller image and creates an equivalent grid on the larger blank sheet of paper or canvas, then reproduces each smaller rectangle in the larger one. I think most people learn this technique sometime in elementary school and we know it is the basis of many mechanical reproductive processes. The little squares that make up the image are analogous to the pixels that show up unwelcome when we try to enlarge our digital photographs too much. Close does not reproduce the drawn lines of the image; rather he fills in the rectangles with a range of grey or black or a bit of color. From a distance you see the face, but when you move close up the bits of color or shade are all you see. This is actually comparable to the experience of moving closer to many oil paintings; as you get closer the image is replaced, if you’re lucky, by brush strokes of rich color and texture all their own. I love this juxtaposition of image with paint texture.

Close has experimented extensively with the way the grid is reproduced, using fingerprints, pulp paper, and other materials to fill in the little rectangles. All of this is fascinating as one explores the various ways the photographic portrait can be transferred.

But I’m writing about the exhibition because I keep thinking of Close’s later paintings and prints in which the relatively large grid rectangles contain swirls of color rather than a single hue or shade. In most of Close’s work the experience of coming closer to it is like that of seeing your photograph pixillate; the person is still there, but the image has degraded so that the person disappears and you move back in order to see him or her again. In these later works you approach the object, somehow believing that you’ll be able to see the person more clearly, and instead the person disappears into an abstract painting. Every time that happens, and since I keep trying to see the person more clearly it happens a lot, I feel a little stab of pain. Rather than just disappearing, it feels like the person is eliminated, converted into a non-human abstraction, and never really was there. The swirls of paint are wonderfully colorful and the abstraction has a gestural liveliness, but I never want to look at it very long; I have to move back and try to bring the person back. This contrast between representation and abstraction, portraiture and pure painting, an image of reality and a total non-reality, haunts, touches and fascinates. While it is possible to imagine this experience, I’m not sure that it can be duplicated through reproductions on computer or in a book because the scale and the texture of the works play a role in the response.

Recently Close has been converting the photographic images –daguerreotypes, actually - into jacquard weavings (done in a French weaving facility) through a complex process. Although these works use the same system of breaking down an image into the tiny bits that make it up and reproducing the image on a far larger scale, the woven faces are so detailed, the bits of information are so tiny, that they much more like straightforward photographic reproductions than most of his work. For me they thus cannot carry the same impact as the paintings and prints, even when the jacquard portrait is of Brad Pitt.

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