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Photographic paintings deserve Close look

Chuck Close's artistic method transposes a photograph into a painting by filling in a blank graph paper canvas with black, white and gray marks, a technique he has employed since the mid-1960s. Instead of formulating his own image, Close chooses the human face as his subject and Polaroids as his model.

Close is so exact when painting details from a photographic image that the subject's neck and sides are often blurred. By restricting his viewer's gaze to the human head and shoulders, he has been able to change mediums and experiment with degrees of detail.


You can currently see the development of this contemporary artist's work until May 26 at the Museum of Modern Art (53rd between 5th and 6th). The exhibition, in conjunction with the print collection "Focus: Chuck Close Editional Works," includes roughly 90 paintings, drawings and photographs. This second portion, located in the Museum's Print Department galleries, includes over 35 pieces of work, varying from wire faces to holograms.

In his early work, the artist only used himself, family and friends as his subjects in pieces that resemble mug shots. Most of his wall size paintings represent a human head, staring intensely at the viewer. They rarely differ in their composition – a frontal, asymmetrical pose, tightly cropped on the subject's shoulders, sides and tops of heads. Close's characters appear to be painted with an almost impersonal detachment.

The self-contained beauty of Close's work is hauntingly real with its illumination of facial pores and detailed precision. And yet, the oversized paintings appear completely surreal.

Close describes his work: "In a way I'm not really trying to make something real. The only way that I can accomplish what I want is to understand not the reality of what I'm dealing with, but the artificiality of what it is."

His first painting, an in-your-face self portrait, exemplifies the grid-based method. Close began by using strict, steady-handed air brushed, dot drawings and a grid of tiny squares.

Close leans his head slightly back, wearing black rimmed glasses and smoking a cigarette. His upper body appears naked and hair in disarray. The unemotional mug shot projects Close as a disheveled, almost eccentric artist baring all and looking like a rebel.


After looking at the painting and its gridded photographic study hung side by side, eerily, you cannot tell one from the other. The glare on his glasses, the follicles of hair, the stubble on his chin, the creases in his forehead, the thin line of smoke:

All of these are realistically painted. The huge canvas may appear exactly like the photograph but much emotion and depth is missing from the illuminated painting.

Transposing what are minor photographic details into accented painted segments creates an aura both intimate and colossal.

All of Close's early portraits are incredibly powerful in their cool deconstruction of conventional ideas of personality and identity. Close's later transition into a less detailed and realistic world suggests that having the right dot in the right place does not necessarily grasp the true essence of a person.

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It is not until his later works when Close abandons precision and adopts more impressionistic and free styles that he come closer to capturing this essence through color.

Interestingly, different approaches to the same image can change its feeling. Close's six part drawing series "Keith 1979" was done with random, square and round fingerprints, watercolors and white conte crayons and ink sticks. The random finger print version appears more tactile and curved while the others appear more digitized.

His experiments are limitless. Close made pulp-paper collages on canvas and even wove "Lucas II, 1987" into a multi-colored carpet. He rotates, distorts and even overlaps grids. Recently, he has worked with oil, painting thousands of blobs, circles and imperfect shapes that fall into place side by side, shifting into a recognizable image.

In December of 1988, at the peak of his career, a congenitally weak blood vessel in Close's spinal column ruptured, paralyzing him from the neck down. After a period of therapy, he regained some sensation and developed ways to continue his work.

One of the more successful of these is the wood carving on display in the print exhibit. Being deprived of certain abilities has forced Close to develop new and more inventive ways of depicting the human visage.

The show is a phenomenal experience that will bring you to question the distinction between painting and photography as well as change your perception of reality.