The sheer majesty of portraits by Chuck Close is enough to mesmerize viewers for a long time. Yet after we get over the initial shock of experiencing Close’s brilliance, questions begin to present themselves. Such questions are as mesmerizing as the portraits and may not have to do with art, per se. Rather, the work evokes matters of perception, identity and the nature of reality. While trying not to be presumptuous, we could say that Close’s portraits cover many disciplines, like metaphysics, philosophy and even learning disabilities.
Dealing with perception is a somewhat obvious feature of Close’s work: we simply don’t realize at first that his watercolor pigment prints are composed of paint fragments, the whole being greater than the parts. But when we step closer to study the fragments, the parts become greater than the whole. Our perceptions are not stable. We are confused, yet also invigorated by this discovery.
Keeping our attention on a particular face, we move from left to right and back again. The subjects’ eyes seem to follow us. Is this an optical illusion? Is this another form of perception thrown into the mix?
However varied our perceptions, we can’t dismiss the idea of fragmentation which plays an important role in Close’s work. The artist has said that he has a learning disability and cannot remember faces; perhaps that’s why he can only identify individuals in segments. He has also revealed that he spent a lot of time watching his grandmother crochet, making individual stars that she would then combine into a whole work. Again, there’s the notion of fragmentation as process. Of course, it’s possible that a fragmented technique can be philosophically and psychologically motivated, although we don’t know Close’s intentions in this regard. In other words, aren’t people made up of different elements and demeanors, all of which make up an entire human being? (Thus fragmentation becomes both content and form in Close’s work.)
This last idea suggests the nature of identity, and here another question presents itself. Why does Close only create portraits of people whom he knows? The answer may not be that earth shaking, but it brings up a problem. For those viewers who are not familiar with Close’s friends and/or the art world generally, the act of experiencing his work may be stymied. We find ourselves trying to figure out who his subjects are, and feel particularly good when we realize that “Kiki,” for example, is Kiki Smith. But this exercise seems to call attention to itself; it becomes a guessing game that may be unnecessary. Then again, perhaps the familiarity that Close evokes with using his subjects’ first names makes his work intensely personal, mitigating his learning disability of not recognizing faces.
Speaking of identity, we must point out that Close’s Jacquard tapestries are not obviously fragmented, but are created by repeating multicolor warp and weft threads that are optically blended. Thus, portraits of Lou Reed and Roy Lichtenstein, for example, seem “whole.” It’s only when we get closer that we see the individual threads, which are woven together.
Close’s exhibit at Guild Hall also allows this critic to recall other artists whose facial close-ups challenge the nature of identity. Consider JR, an anonymous street artist from Paris who won the 2011 TED Prize. His black and white photographs were posted all over pubic spaces in Paris and Times Square to challenge the preconception of identity as propagated by the media. While JR’s goal was a political and sociological one, he owes his art to Close as well.
Chuck Close’s exhibit will be on view at East Hampton’s Guild Hall, 158 Main Street, until Oct. 14, 2013, guildhall.org, 631-324-0806.