What makes up a face? From a distance, we recognize people by shape and basic forms, trying to focus the blurry edges. As the person gets closer, details emerge: shadows, wrinkles, whiskers. Chuck Close is well aware of the "order" of perception, and he's used it to fuel his distinctive body of visual art.
"Chuck Close Prints: Process and Collaboration" is being hailed as the most ambitious project ever exhibited at the University of Houston's Blaffer Gallery. Featuring 118 works dating from 1972 to 2002, the show includes etchings, lithographs, paintings, silk screens and traditional Japanese woodcuts, making it the first comprehensive exhibit of Close's work.
The artist is known largely for his portraits (and self-portraits), which are transferred from photographs. Most of the "heads," as Close calls them, are viewed frontally, like mug shots and identification cards. His subjects aren't so much the models as the photographs themselves, which become skewed and deconstructed during the printing process.
"It's portraiture taken to a completely different plane," says Terrie Sultan, director of the Blaffer Gallery and one the exhibit's organizers. Sultan, who has worked on the project during the past three years, believes Close is one of America's most important living artists. "He fundamentally changed the way we view things," she says. "That's what makes him important."
Close's first "subjects" were his classmates at Yale University, where he earned his MFA in the '60s. Among them were artist Nancy Graves, sculptor Richard Serra and composer Philip Glass.
While Close may work on a painting for months, exacting complete control over his work, his prints are collaborative projects. The process of navigating through personalities, artistic styles, tastes and schedules -- and making compromises -- has made a big impact on Close's work. "Like any corporation, I have the benefit of the brainpower of everyone working for me," he once said. "My prints have been truly collaborative, even though control is something that I give up reluctantly."
Close also knows a little something about patience. Some of his prints have taken, from conception to final edition, more than two years to complete. And while the steps in the process may be lost on the viewer, they're complicated and painstaking. As Sultan writes in the exhibition catalog, "This project is entitled Process and Collaboration because those two words are essential to any conversation with Close about his prints. The creative process is as important to him as the finished product, and these works strive to reveal the routes taken to get them."
To the modern viewer, some of Close's works initially may appear to be Photoshopped. But make no mistake: Close creates all his prints the old-fashioned way. For example, Lyle, a silk-screen portrait, utilizes hundreds of colors to achieve its optical illusion-like effect. The craftsmanship of printing, in this case, is taken to a level beyond what even a computer could do. Close's prints have souls. "He pushed something into a new direction," says Sultan. "It's something about the way he sees things."
Opening reception: 7 p.m. Friday, September 12. The exhibit runs through November 23. Blaffer Gallery, UH main campus, entrance no. 16 (off Cullen), 713-743-9530, www.blaffergallery.org.
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