Extreme Makeovers

Today we're hyperaware of learning disabilities of all kinds, but in the '40s and '50s, when artist Chuck Close was in school, kids with dyslexia and other LDs were classified as slow or lazy. Close didn't figure out he himself had a learning disability until he attended a talk about them given at his eight-year-old daughter's school. In the course of the speaker's lecture, she rattled off a couple of the more exotic learning disabilities and they sounded eerily familiar to Close. He told her as much when he went up to speak to her after the talk. She asked him questions, and their discussion ended with her telling him he was the first person she'd ever met with his specific cocktail of learning disabilities who wasn't in jail -- for forgery. For Close, best known for his super-realistic paintings of people's faces, Benjamin Franklin excluded, that was a fascinating detail.

Close had the good fortune to find a way to channel his idiosyncratic blend of talent and disability into a successful art career. And while the artist's struggle with learning disabilities is an intriguing biographical detail, it is also relevant in terms of the way Close sees the world and in turn how he makes art out of that vision. As a young artist Close worked in the abstract expressionist zone, but soon he evolved the strategy that would serve him to this day: He began taking close-up photographs of people's heads and systematically reproducing them on a very large scale. He did this by dissecting the images into tiny manageable bits via a grid. The overwhelming whole is broken into small unrecognizable chunks that Close doggedly renders.

Close has attention deficit disorder and discovered that setting up systematic processes was an effective strategy for him to use to create work. Printmaking is the ultimate genre for obsessive, process- oriented and labor-intensive work, and it is a medium Close uses extremely effectively. "Chuck Close Prints: Process and Collaboration," organized by Terrie Sultan, director of the Blaffer Gallery, surveys 30 years of the artist's print works in everything from etching to silkscreen to woodcuts, paper pulp and even thumbprints.

Close's works are all portraits, and the process is in some ways more important than the original image. Close refers to them as mug shots, as heads. Close minutely scrutinizes faces and deconstructs them into tiny sections to reconstruct them. One of the greatest ironies is that while Close has an affinity for people, he cannot remember faces. As he describes it, if someone talking to him moves her head, her face becomes an entirely new one. This inability to recognize faces, called prosopagnosia, affects people in different ways. It seems some people can see faces but cannot register features in their memories, while others have a visual equivalent of tone deafness. Yes, they see faces, but they simply can't distinguish between them.

The exhibition is one of printmaking, but more important, it is an exhibition of the process of printmaking. Proofs, plates and source materials are also on view. Because of the highly technical nature of most forms of printmaking, its labor-intensiveness and the specific facilities needed, artists with the economic wherewithal work with master printers to achieve the sorts of prints they want. Close is a bright, genial and down-to-earth artist, something that no doubt contributes to the success of his collaborative works. Large scale alone is a challenge for the majority of printing techniques. There is a lot of give and take as the artist and printmaker work with what is desired and what is technically possible, often pushing those boundaries.

Keith is an early mezzotint from 1972. In a mezzotint, a copper plate is covered with burrs either with a hand-rocker or, in the case of Close's work, through photo-etching. If coated with ink, the entire plate would print black. Creating the image requires smoothing down, or burnishing the surface burrs to create lighter areas. The artist works in reverse from total blackness to white. To add to the challenge, the 36- by 45-inch size was the largest the printer had ever done, and a special press had to be ordered specifically for the project. Close allowed the grid he usually hid to become visible in this work. He started with the mouth and worked outward in sections. In the final print the mouth area is lighter because it was proofed more, causing the surface to wear down. The resulting image of a man with '70s feathered hair and a turtleneck, seems to be composed of building blocks while at the same time appearing almost photographically realistic.

Emma (2002), a print of the artist's niece, is based on a painting done by the artist from a photograph, in an artistic version of six degrees of separation. It's painted in a diagonal grid of tiny squares of abstract swirls, circles and lozenges of color. The painting took three months to execute and the print took three years. This type of Japanese woodblock-style printing is a 300-year-old technique called ukiyo-e. The work was created with Yasu Shibata, a Japanese master printer, who separated the colors and painstakingly hand-carved on wood panels each little shape painted by Close's brush. Eight of the final 27 panels needed for the print are on view. The mind boggles as you contemplate the numerous blips and circles of color, with several colors printed on each panel. The final result is more luminous than the original painting because of the translucence of the water-based inks on the white paper.

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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Kelly Klaasmeyer
Contact: Kelly Klaasmeyer