Chuck Close Exhibit at the Schack Art Center WRITTEN BY GAREN GLAZIER
here is, perhaps, nothing so familiar to us as the human face. Two eyes, a nose, and a mouth comprise the curves, contours, and creases that make us unique. The desire to capture those features for perpetuity runs deep, reflected in a rich history of portraiture in art. That which drove the Old Masters to record countenances in oil on canvas is what fuels today’s abundance of digital selfies. This relationship between the measured skill required to capture a likeness in previous centuries and the current ease of image-making is a central theme of “Chuck Close: Prints, Process, and Collaboration” now on view at the Schack Art Center in Everett. It’s the first time that an exhibition of Chuck Close’s work will be shown in the community where he grew up. Born in Monroe and raised in Snohomish County, Close went on to become an internationally renowned artist, with works in many of the world’s major museums of contemporary art. He built his impressive resume despite serious hardships along the way. These emotional and physical challenges began, tragically, with the death of his father when Close was only eleven. At fourteen, plagued by a severe learning disability, he was told not to even think of attending college (he would earn his MFA from Yale in 1964). Later, in 1988, Close suffered a seizure that left him paralyzed from the neck down. The show at the Schack, then, is a tribute not only to Close’s immense talent, but also to his incredible resiliency and the creativity inspired by his adversity. The depth of that originality is revealed in the nearly 90 prints and working proofs on display at the Schack. Each is an intimate, if often monumental, study of a face and the “roadmap of human experience” that it reveals. Close often
crafts these roadmaps by dividing photos he takes of each sitter’s head into a matrix of squares, which he then interprets with painstaking detail into his prints and paintings. What the lens of the camera captured in the blink of an eye, Close recreates using methods requiring time and great skill, harking back to the way images were made before the advent of photography. The show begins with an early example of this method in his first work as an established artist, Keith/Mezzotint, from 1972. Close resurrected the archaic and demanding mezzotint printmaking technique from the eighteenth century, but beyond its degree of difficulty, the work is significant because it marks the first time Close revealed the grid he used to adapt the portrait from the original photo. “After finishing Keith,” the artist notes, “I started doing dot drawings and other pieces in which the incremental unit was visible and ultimately celebrated in a million different ways.” Inspired by this celebration of the unit, Close went on to play with the process of breaking down and building up images in a variety of media, from woodcuts and etchings to handmade paper and tapestries, calling on a series of close collaborators to execute his artistic vision.
“I am confident that no artist has more pleasure day in and day out from what he or she does than I do.” One of his more recent collaborations resulted in the development of a stamping technique that allows for the manual application of individual colors according to a grid and chart system. “It’s like working with a computer,” Close says, “but by hand,” as dots of color coalesce into a unified image. These hand-crafted “pixels” are a continuation of the focus on process that is at the heart of Close’s creative method. Hanging amid the finished pieces in the show, and becoming like works of art in and of themselves, are progressive proofs, matrices, woodcut blocks, and etching plates that allow visitors a glimpse into Close’s methodical production practices inspired by, but at odds with, the ease and speed of the digital world. However, what’s notable beyond the intensive processes, technical prowess, and artistic mastery of the images in the show is the sense of curiosity and discovery that permeates the faces on display. The satisfaction Close has in the making of his art is palpable.