One could say that artist Chuck Close’s works are oxymora: a study in seeming contradictions.
Suffering from face blindness, he is unable to recognize faces. Yet this, one of the most well known of contemporary artists, has used faces as his subject matter for over 40 years. He uses the controlling geometry of a grid to produce his works. Free-form shapes frolic within. Although the scale of his portraits is monumental, the works are composed of tiny mini-works, created within the grid squares. Each piece is a balance between contrasts: between the formal and informal; the abstract and the real; asceticism and sensuality. Starting from a photograph, Close’s large iconic faces are formally frontal; literally in your face. These mug shots recall the unflattering, unemotional pose of a passport. Unlike the tradition of portraiture through the ages, there is no attempt to flatter. The artist takes a photo and then superimposes a working grid; horizontal-vertical or diagonal. This structured formality removes any spontaneity as he transfers it to the canvas or print surface. But the resulting artwork is far from dispassionate. Indeed, he does work within the strict confines of the grid, but herein lays the contrast. Each little square of the grid becomes Close’s creative space, full of vibrant colours and different shapes. Lozenge-like dabs, blobs, squiggles and swirls form an opposition to the strictness of the square. This is the fabulous point counterpoint of Chuck Close’s protean talent. From a distance, his super sized works – 8’, 9’, 10’ high– are realistic portraits. Then one goes closer. Within the methodology of the grid is a joyful patchwork of incremental colours that counter the geometry. These quadrants when ‘read’ together resolve into the ‘realistic’ image of a face. Yet, when viewed closely, they are abstract. Whether an etching, silkscreen, a linoleum cut, mezzotint or woodblock, each has a ‘hot’ emotional intensity that counterbalances the ‘cool’ grid. Chuck Close’s ‘paint-by-numbers’ approach to portraiture jumpstarts his creativity. Although the use of the lattice-like framework ensures the accuracy of the image as seen on the original photograph, within the grating the artist maps his own world. And therein lies the talent of a man who has meticulously repeated this format “since about 1965.” His means of re-generating an image is a grid. But within that minimalism, Chuck Close presents the maximum of creativity. This master of the matrix presents opposing concepts in each picture, while unifying them with his overall vision.
Speaking to Vie des Arts from his New York studio, he willingly discussed his work and creative process:
Veronica Redgrave: How would you describe your work?
Chuck Close: It is photo-derived or photo-based, of course. But I have always shied away from terms like Photorealism because after using a photo, then the similarity ends. I have found other ways to translate the photo to another surface. I am interested as much in the ‘artificial’ as I am in the real. I put the emphasis on the live experience of what I call ‘ripping back and forth’ between the flat surface of the image and what it portrays. It is rather like standing on a Roman floor mosaic. You are aware of the flat surface of the floor. Then it warps into an image, say, of a lion’s paw. Then it flattens back again. The experience rips between the two conditions, and it is this ‘ripping’ that makes the art so interesting.
VR: I find it curious that Sol LeWitt influenced you. Yet his minimalist approach seem polar to yours, which I find quite sensual.
CC: Well, LeWitt was sensual himself. What is important is not so much his direct influence, but the notion of self-imposed limitations and how one alters them. You take a belief in a system, and follow it. It is the route that is interesting. His work has logic and intuitiveness built into the process. There are times when he is elegant and decorative, and others when he is rigorous and bare-boned. But I love his processes liberated him and allowed him to become so many different artists. It is imposing these limitations that allows you to become a different artist each time.
VR: To what extent do you visualize the final result when you start ‘filling in the squares’, as it were?
CC: I know the result will look like the photograph, but not the route I will take. The route is the often the experience. The iconography is the head, but I don’t know how I will get them. I am always surprised making shapes and colours that I have never made before. You can compare it to going to the Met in NY, for example. You can drive, take a cab, walk or take the subway. Each experience is totally different.
VR: How do you choose which kind of grid to use? Vertical / horizontal or diagonal?
CC: I have all the photo grids on Mylar. Some are fine, some coarse; some horizontal and others diagonal. I slide them over the photo and look at how the units of the grid fall on the image. Then it is easy to decide if one or the other makes more sense. It is determined by how I see the situation unfolding. But I am always plagued with indecision.
VR: You have said that each time you look at someone again, it is like looking at a new person, due to your ‘face blindness’. When you look at the faces you create, is this the same case?
CC: No. Once they are flat, I recognize them with no difficulty.
VR: You work in a myriad of mediums. Do you have a favourite?
CC: Most of all I love oil painting. I do work in many print mediums, but if I had to choose only one, I would choose painting. l
Galerie de Bellefeuille
1367 Greene Ave. Westmount, QC
Tel.: 514 933-4406
November 5 – 30, 2011