Art Essays

Chuck Close

Published September 25, 2010

Chuck Close is celebrated as an artist who has made creative use of his disabilities, although one might say he has simply refused to be beaten by them. Struck down by a collapsed spinal artery in December 1988, he has been in a wheelchair ever since, painting with brushes strapped to his wrist. Close’s stroke and its aftermath influenced his evolution from precise photo-realism to a more loose and expressive style, but he was already set on that path.
Long before that moment he calls “The Event”, Close (b.1940), was exploring a free and de-skilled approach. The paralysis he suffered, and the subsequent struggle to regain the use of his arms, only confirmed his instinctive choice of direction.
In the years before his life-changing seizure, Close was an established star of the New York art world. He had made his reputation with a series of exacting photorealist paintings, beginning with the Big Self-Portrait of 1968, that stood apart from the prevailing vogue for abstract and conceptual art. The influential critic, Clement Greenberg, had said that no one could paint a portrait any more. Close said: “Why not?”

Even in these days Close was struggling with various disabilities. He had been severely dyslexic at a time when no-one had ever heard of the problem, and suffers from a condition called prosopagnosia, otherwise known as “face blindness”. This means he cannot recognise a person’s face from one day to the next. It was no accident that he would become the world’s most dogged recorder of the human face, painting massive likenesses of himself and his friends taken from photographs.
Neither was it a matter of coincidence that Close would develop a fascination with the grid format that has lasted for more than forty years. He began painting on a gridded canvas as a way of curtailing his own facility, which made him feel he was only repeating a familiar set of tricks. In the years following 1988, he found that by working slowly and deliberately on one small square at a time could he achieve the results he wanted.
It is part of Close’s creative DNA that he has always been concerned with process, and this makes him an ideal printmaker. His disabilities have accustomed him to working in close collaboration with others and given him the patience to endure the many difficulties that have to be overcome in order to make innovative works in this medium.
Close’s prints are among the most remarkable feats of printmaking ever attempted, combining many different techniques, sometimes requiring up to two years’ work before a finished proof appears. One may sample the power of these prints at Utopia Art in the Dank Street complex, which is holding an exhibition of Close’s works on paper in association with Pace Gallery of New York.
Looking at a piece such as Alex (1993) – a large-scale portrait of the painter Alex Katz, one struggles to understand how this image was made. It turns out to have begun life as a Polaroid print, before being translated into a linoleum cut, then into a silk screen. There were at least seven separate stages in the creation of the picture. An impressive portrait of the composer, Philip Glass, is built up from finger prints on rough pulp paper. The work is based on the same Polaroid image from which Close made one of his best-known paintings. The smaller portrait heads in this show are no less complex, containing many layers of colour and requiring months of patient toil.
Process in art may be gripping to observe and consider, but it is boring to read about. Consequently, I have no wish to give painstaking descriptions of these works that can never do justice to the actual experience of standing in front of them. With prints like these, description is death, but to see with one’s own eyes is a marvel.
Unlike a portraitist such as Lucian Freud, who has an unholy dread of the camera, Close has always based his paintings and prints on photographs. “A photograph doesn’t gain weight or lose weight,” he once told an interviewer, “or change from being happy to being sad. It’s frozen. You can use it, then recycle it.”
This is precisely what Freud detests: the propensity of the camera to freeze a person’s features in deathly immobility, while they are actually changing minute by minute, second by second. Freud believes it is the artist’s greatest challenge to capture the spark of life that defines a particular personality, even at the cost of a likeness. When he succeeds, the work will have a resemblance to the sitter that goes far beyond the bounds of simple appearances.
It is Close’s achievement that he has managed to take photographic portraits and transform them into images that are striking for both their abstract and representational qualities. He has tried to find the exact amount of dots he needs to create a recognisable face, and how many marks one can add before that face becomes illegible. This systematic line of attack is no less precarious and exhausting than Freud’s intuitive methods. It bears out the idea that if an artist takes to anything with sufficient intensity, something wonderful will emerge.
The case for lukewarmness may be found at the Museum of Contemporary Art, in the form of a survey of filmic works by British artist, Runa Islam (b.1970), who was born in Bangladesh but seems to owe little to her country of origin.
Runa Islam: Be The First To See What You See As You See It (still) 2004 16mm colour film

Origins are only ever an issue if an artist chooses to present herself in that light. The real issue with this exhibition lies with its dullness. I was amazed to read the MCA’s Rachel Kent praising this show by quoting a dictum from French director, Robert Bresson: “Dismantle and put together until one gets intensity.” [italics in original]. Close and Freud may be intense, but it’s hard to imagine anyone – apart from a curator of contemporary art – feeling their pulse quicken when confronted with Islam’s dreary exercises in deconstructing the mechanics of film.
The show is a fitting complement to the MCA’s major exhibition of the moment, In the Balance: Art for a Changing World. If I said this survey of environmental art is visually uninspired, that would be a pitiful understatement. At least the theme raises a few issues, which I’ll pursue at a later date. The liveliest show to be seen at the MCA is the annual Primavera exhibition of emerging artists, where guest curator, Katie Dyer has sought out a little quirkiness and humour.
No such fun disturbs the Islam show, which consists of six projections and a couple of faded archival photos. It is a body of work that has been heavily influenced by theory. This means it exerts an exaggerated appeal on a small group of would-be intellectual dynamos, while everyone else is left scratching their heads.
Much could be said about the catalogue, which begins with eighteen pages of black-and-white photos of the back of a folding screen. If that is not enticing enough, Canadian curator, Mark Lanctot, has contributed an essay that is fertile in the jargon of film theory, but barren in its insights. It’s amusing to find that less abstruse terms such as ‘new’ and ‘different’ are placed in scare quotes.
Lanctot also discusses the reference in Islam’s work, Stromboli, to Roberto Rossellini’s film of the same name from 1950 – even though he has already told us the artist had not seen the earlier movie when she made hers.
It helps lend an air of importance to Islam’s projections that she shows with the chic White Cube gallery of London, but the tired rhetoric about her “investigations” into the filmic experience does nothing to make those projects more interesting. Islam herself says she is on “a learning curve”, which suggests a certain vagueness.
These works are steeped in the ideology of false seriousness that prefers its art to be limited and boring. For some reason, this deeply perverse viewpoint is especially prevalent in relation to those artists who concentrate on films and video. It may be a reaction to the status of film as the popular art par excellence. So many artists’ films deliberately reject values such as narrative and entertainment in favour of a perpetual re-run of the dry, formalist strategies explored by generations of avant-garde filmmakers. Is there any virtue in a museum boring an audience? Only if you want them to stay away and leave you alone.
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, September 25, 2010
Chuck Close: Woodcuts and Pulp Prints
Utopia Art, until 2 October.

Runa Islam, Museum of Contemporary Art, until 21 November.