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Extreme Makeovers

Chuck Close takes apart people's faces and puts them back together again

Upstairs, Self Portrait/Scribble/Etching Portfolio (2000) is fascinating in that it shows Close's ability to dissect layers of color. Soft ground etchings are created by placing a piece of newsprint over an etching plate that has been coated with a pliable, nondrying ground. As you draw over the newsprint it pulls away the material, exposing the plate. The exposed sections will etch when placed in acid. For Close's self-portrait he created layers of colors, one plate for each. He worked from an original photograph of himself, making one drawing of just the yellow areas, one of the turquoise areas, and so on -- with 12 colors in all. Close also had to figure out how these colors would combine, an Olympic act of mental gymnastics.

In his show at the Texas Gallery, "Chuck Close: Daguerreotype to Digital," Close incorporates 21st- and elaborate 19th-century photographic techniques. Digital ink-jet print photos are unceremoniously tacked to the wall with T-pins. Two large-scale photos are composed of a grid of four sheets. Close's photos are like a who's who of the art world, because these are the people he knows or because they are artists who interest him. In the gallery Jasper Johns looks beady-eyed and mean. On the opposite wall Robert Rauschenberg looks gregarious but time-worn. You can see every broken capillary all those years of boozing have earned him. The smaller images in the show aren't that interesting, but on this large scale you become transfixed by stubble, and pores and wrinkles and splotches.

In contrast, the daguerreotypes are tiny and subtle, gently placed in black velvet-lined boxes like the precious, fragile objects they are. Their surfaces are polished and mirrorlike; the angle of the black velvet lids keeps them visible. The subjects look like something out of another time, even the tattooed nude torsos. Close with his round glasses peers out in a self-portrait, the lens distorting his face slightly so it's like viewing him through a peephole -- albeit a peephole into the 19th century. You feel as if time has been warped.

Today learning disabilities are such a ubiquitous topic of conversation that there is almost a backlash. Are we medicating personality as we Ritalin kids into compliance? Close's story is an example of the fascinating ways in which our brains operate. His artwork is the result of developing a strategy to create work out of strengths, limitations and interests. Most artists go through a similar process in making their art, but each has a different obstacle course. Close probably would have been a great forger, but he's a much better artist.

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