If you've ever encountered a large-scale portrait painting by Chuck Close, you've probably been under its spell. From afar, the image is stunningly lifelike, but the closer you get the more the illusion disintegrates into a colorful grid of donuts, ovals, squares, diamonds and pyramids. The effect is visually very pleasurable, and may lead to a private tango with the work, in which you take steps forward and back to find the point where it flips.
For curators, Close poses an unusual challenge, like Odysseus nearing the Sirens. How do you exhibit the work in a way that allows viewers to enjoy the experience of looking at its surface beauty, but also helps them to look beyond captivation to the questions of perception, history, invention and labor that lie below? The curators of "Closer: The Graphic Art of Chuck Close," an exhibition on display at the Bruce Museum through January 26, 2014, offer a compelling solution that forgoes the display of Close's paintings completely in order to focus solely on his body of prints. This makes sense, given the two mediums' close relationship, which Close describes in the main wall text: "Any innovation that is evident in my paintings is a direct result of something that happened in the course of making a print."
In the first room, we encounter 24 small works on paper that make up "Self Portrait" (2000). Installed in a circuit, the portfolio quietly and slowly tells the story of the final work's making, a signature portrait of Close with his full beard and circle-rimmed glasses. The first print in the series is a loose field of spiraling red marks, which the artist calls scribbles. A second layer of blue scribbles, when placed atop the red, increases the focus. Notch by notch, each layer adds specific tonal increments: the orange layer adds flesh to the cheeks, the green layer brings life to the eyes, the blue-green layer maps the underlying bone structure. Upon reaching #24, viewers complete the loop and are confronted with #1 again, and the work's invitation appears. "Self Portrait" allows us to learn, unlearn and relearn our relationship with color again and again.
For Close, the creation of "Self Portrait" involved an unperceivable challenge that we can only learn about in the wall text. To make the series of intaglio prints, Close devised a printmaking process that pushed the limits of the medium to its fullest, and called for a 12-color process, instead of the usual limit of six. Naturally, the labor doubled as well, and the portfolio required four printing assistants to print three colors a day over the course of four days. Close's perpetual inventiveness and the lengths to which he will go to test out a new concept or to resurrect an old printing technique is the highlight of the show. Credit is due largely to the curators, whose exhaustive research on the history, process and relationship of each print technique to Close and his work is presented on lengthy wall labels that accompany each work.
For example, the wall label for "Keith/Mezzotint" (1972) explains who Keith is (Close's friend and sculptor Keith Hollingworth) what mezzotint is (a print technology invented in Amsterdam the 17th century) what it was originally used for (to reproduce paintings in printed form), when and why mezzotint fell out of favor (it was replaced with photogravure and with the invention of the camera in the nineteenth century, which made printing faster and cheaper), why Close chose it (he wanted to resurrect the obsolete medium on a never-before-attempted large scale), what new inventions were required for the project (he built a large press) where he produced the work (Point Press in Oakland, California) the name of the master printer he worked with (Kathan Brown) and the length of their production (three months). Close's interest in obsolete print technologies took him around the world and put him in the company of the best-known master printers of the twentieth century. For "Leslie" (1986), Close traveled to Kyoto, Japan to collaborate with master printer Tadashi Toda on his first uklyo-e woodcut. The process involved a hand-painting and printing water-based ink prints 117 times and was so technically challenging that Close had to relinquish control to Tado. For "Lucas/Woodcut" (1993) Close worked with German master printer Karl Hecksher for an unprecedented six-month period to proof an edition of 50 extremely complicated prints. From the beginning, "Alex/Reduction Block" (1993), which started at Tandem Press in Madison, Wisconsin and finished at Brand X Editions in New York City was doomed. Close only had nine days to complete the work when the linoleum block arrived punctured and the $25,000 Japanese paper did not hold ink evenly. But for Close, these follies led to new discoveries. Close devised a strategy for salvaging the linoleum cut by printing it closer to home, as a silk screen, which lends to prints hybrid status as a silkscreen with the material character of a linocut.
Serendipity happened at the Dieu Donne Papermill in New York City in 1984, during the editing process for a pulp paper print. As pressed out chips of paper that did not fit the mold fell to the floor, Close collected the scraps, which he admired for their curled edges and irregularity. Two years later, he used the chips to create a collage of his daughter "Georgia" (1984), which he sought to turn into an editioned print. Close hired Joe Wilfer to create a mold that could replicate the original's irregular shapes, which involved metal, brass and 400 hours of labor. "Georgia" reveals Close's simultaneous embrace of structure and chance, which points to the two hats that he wears as technician and alchemist. These roles necessarily go hand in hand, since a traditionalist can have an absolute command of his craft, but without the ability to breathe life into things the final work remains plastic, and when problems arise the work folds into ruins. That Close renders this inner life by starting with a photographic image, only to dismantle it with the likeness of a Byzantine mosaic, describes his quiet indebtedness to the history and influence of the technologies that came before him. The real zeitgeist in this show isn't the face, rather it is the hand, which carries the profound ability to give elements over to time.
Closer: The Graphic Art of Chuck Close
Through Jan. 26, 2014
The Bruce Museum, 1 Museum Drive, Greenwich, (203) 869-0376, brucemuseum.org