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Chuck Close’s Self-Portrait Permutations

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CHC 1036
Self-Portrait (Yellow Raincoat), 2013; archival watercolor pigment print, 75 by 60 inches.

“Chuck Close: Up Close,” on view at Alan Avery Art Company through April 19, presents a collection of 20 of the artist’s self-portraits spanning four decades. “Up Close” does just that: allows one to examine Close’s diverse stylistic approaches within the parameters of the grid.

The F Word at Hunter Museum

Smartly, the exhibition begins with Self-Portrait I / Maquette, a Polaroid from 2011 mounted on foamcore with a grid drawn over the artist’s face. The lines divide the 35½ -by-24¼-inch photograph into squares spanning the entire frame. Looking closely at each square, I see how Close breaks down each part of the grid into color and shape. The highlighted cheek might become a red and pink orb and the rim of his glasses an elongated oval of black against a gray square in, for example, a silkscreen print. The exhibition’s arrangement helps me to start to think like the artist, but as I move through the show, I am continually surprised.

Self-Portrait/ Maquette from 1977 makes evident that Close’s process has barely changed in over 30 years. A silver gelatin photograph mounted to foamcore depicts another set of perfect lines in a small grid across the print. But this piece has been the victim of time. The top half of the photograph appears to have been exposed to water, essentially erasing the top portion of Close’s head. Here, the cells show both the tonal range of grays that compose the portrait as well as the swirling and melting emulsion of the fading print.

CHC 1057
Chuck Close, Self Portrait/Maquette, 1977; gelatin silver print with graphite, ink, and tape mounted on foamcore, 20 by 16 inches.

“Up Close” contains primarily works on paper—complicated prints, photographs, and recent digital prints, as well as two large-scale tapestries—all showing Close’s visage described in his iconic orbs that together comprise, like pixels, the illusion of a photograph. In documentaries and articles, Close has spoken about how he developed his pictorial syntax both as a means to demonstrate how color and shape build our visual world and as a way to physically create his vision of large-scale works. Close’s primary subject has altered only slightly over four decades. Self-portraiture is not new, but it certainly has taken on new forms as he explores new vocabulary within his prescribed syntax.

Close’s works often seem to derive from the source of the initial image: silver gelatin prints inspire black-and-white screen prints and color Polaroids are the basis for 246-color silkscreens. Other works by Close are inspired by new processes that seem to remove the artist’s hand, like a new watercolor digital printing process on Hahnemühle paper, on which bleeding colors replace the orbs painted within a grid.

Close’s various strategies in approaching the same subject is impressive. Each cell in every grid of every piece becomes it’s own painting, built microcosms that comprise the whole. It’s a visual game to decode which patterns, colors, and shapes are used in each print and then to step back with the cracked code for an overview of how the pieces become a whole. In Close’s most recent work, the grid cells are larger, allowing for looser, less precise shapes. I begin to wonder if what makes Chuck Close an icon is actually him, or all the possible colors and shapes he is painted with.

Stephanie Dowda‘s exhibition of photographs from her “Topophilia” series can be seen at Get This! Gallery through May 10.