Take a closer look: Steven Vail Fine Arts presents collection of self-portraits by Chuck Close

Chuck Close
Chuck Close’s 2007 self-portrait woodcut print created in the Ukiyo-e tradition. — image courtesy of Steven Vail Fine Arts.

Steven Vail Fine Arts is currently showcasing a collection of prints by Chuck Close that encompass a range of techniques, including woodcut and silkscreen. The show goes through June 14 and is a rare opportunity to see a grouping of the artist’s work in Eastern Iowa.

Close is most well-known for his portraits and self-portraits that helped the Photorealism movement gain momentum in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Photorealism developed as an offshoot of Pop Art and was a counter-response to Abstract Expressionism. Close, along with Richard Estes, Robert Bechtle, Ralph Goings, John Baeder and Audrey Flack, belongs to the first generation of Photorealist painters.

Close is represented by Pace Gallery in New York. His work has been the centerpiece of more than 150 solo exhibitions and he has participated in nearly 800 group shows. Close can be found in the permanent collections of many renowned contemporary art museums, including the Museum Of Modern Art, the Center Georges Pompidou in Paris and the Tate Modern in London.

Throughout his artistic career, Close has worked from photographs. He composes his larger-than-life portraits by using a grid and then completing the painting cell-by-cell. The grid method has long been a part of art history, reaching as far back as the Renaissance. Close’s work engages in a preoccupation that fascinated the Pointillists — the breakdown of imagery into daubs of color that the viewer’s eye then optically mixes. A similar phenomenon occurs when we observe the pixilation of color in digital photography as an accurate representation of life.

The show at Steven Vail gives gallery visitors the unique opportunity to see how Close creates a similar multicolored warp and weft of visual information using the methods of printmaking. Ten self-portraits of varying sizes stare out at the viewer from the wall and offer a representation of Close at different stages of his career. The oldest piece in the exhibition is a spit bite aquatint from 1988 and the most recent, a woodcut from 2009.

The aquatint, Self-Portrait (1988), portrays a younger, more heavily bearded version of Close. The image itself is low resolution, like a photograph reduced to the fewest possible pixels. While the image preserves some legibility, his facial expression is unreadable: The viewer can not see his eyes, and though his mouth is slightly agape, there is no way of telling whether he’s smiling or just slack-jawed. Through the overall posture, with his headed tipped back and his chin jutting forward, he looks self-assured. This print is paired with another aquatint Self-Portrait/Spitbite/White on Black completed in 1997. Here Close reused the same image, but this time the self-portrait is darker, resembling an underexposed photograph in which the visual information is further obscured.

The more recent prints of an older and wiser Close regard us head-on or give us a sidelong glance. It is important to note that Close suffers from prosopagnosia — the inability to recognize someone (even a loved one or in some cases oneself) based on facial features. The artist once remarked in an interview with Lisa Yuskavage for Bomb Magazine that only after years of painting portraits did it occur to him on a conscious level that his frustrations about not being able to recognize people motivated his choice in subject matter. His self-portraits possess a type of scrutiny that is not about a holistic understanding of a face; he takes his own face apart piecemeal and then reassembles the parts like a jigsaw puzzle until the image becomes recognizable.

Self-Portrait Woodcut, one of Close’s most recent works to appear at Steven Vail, is a 47-color woodblock print done in the Ukiyo-e tradition. This three-quarter profile is built up using a diagonal grid comprised of greys, browns and blues. Each square of the grid is filled in with concentric circles or amoeba-like forms. In studying the print over time, the component parts seem to vacillate back and forth in space.

Two other “scribble” etchings composed of scrawling marks of 12 and 19 different colors, while interesting on a technical level , are less compelling from a conceptual standpoint: Despite a visual clarity that reveals the specific characteristics of Close’s face and captures a somewhat introspective expression, these straight-forward images provoke fewer questions than the other works do.

A gray-scale self-portrait from 2000 entitled Chuck/Pulp/Pochoir stops me in my tracks. Printed on a black piece of paper, the dots of lighter color emerge from the dark ground. The mid-tones pull back and the deepest shadows, which are created by leaving the paper blank, cause the image to dissolve into the background. Close’s stern expression is confrontational; he meets the viewer’s gaze.

In Close’s work, the purpose of self-portraiture comes to the fore. Clearly a self-portrait, like a portrait, serves as a record of someone who lived, but more importantly, it reveals how the artist feels about his or herself. Close’s self-portraits address questions with which he grapples in navigating a world of unrecognizable people. Although we can not presume to know what such struggles are like, nevertheless the question arises — when we become unrecognizable to ourselves or others become unrecognizable to us, how do we contend with that uncertainty?

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