Chuck Close: A Couple of Ways of Doing Something
This show of portraits invites us to linger over and study faces, to really see them
Reviewed by Robert Faires, Fri., Sept. 11, 2009
'Chuck Close: A Couple of Ways of Doing Something'
Austin Museum of Art – Downtown
Through Nov. 8
"Have you seen her face?"
That query from the old Byrds song might well be what Chuck Close is asking from the 8-by-6-foot self-portrait that greets you upon entering the exhibition of his recent work at the Austin Museum of Art. For in this collection of portraits, the artist focuses intently on the human face in a way that invites our scrutiny, that draws us to linger over its features – those lips, those eyes, that dimpled cheek, that creased brow – and study both them and how they coalesce into a countenance. We look at faces all the time, but how often do we see them? Here, Close is inciting us to do just that.
This is hardly new territory for Close, who made his name in the Seventies with outsized photo-realist paintings of faces in, excuse the pun, extreme close-up. But the novelty of his approach here is that Close offers two and three versions of the same portrait, playing with scale and technique in ways that will have you scanning the works for differences. Does his nose seem more pronounced in this one than that one? Is her smile warmer in one over the other?
The foundation of the show is a series of 15 daguerrotypes, made with that early silver-mirrored photographic process that creates exceptional clarity of image and richness of tone. Displayed together on a shelf, they're relatively small – each one 107/8 by 815/16 inches – and shielded because of their sensitivity to light. So to see them, you really have to draw near, so near that no one else can look at one at the same time you do. It's as if you're having a private audience with the subject, a whispered exchange to which no other soul is privy. And because of the personal manner in which Close shot most of his subjects – gazing directly into the lens with at least one eye in the point of sharpest focus – your sense of intimacy is intensified. You come away from one feeling that you've been entrusted with a secret.
Elsewhere in the gallery, you may find a larger reproduction of one of these daguerrotype portraits, a 26½-by-20-inch ink-jet pigment print, and though you'll know it's made from an image you've already seen, you may find yourself looking at it as if it isn't. The jump in scale makes certain features more prominent than they appeared when the face was small enough for your eye to take it all in in one glance; you find yourself suddenly noticing the roundness of Laurie Anderson's nose or the fullness of Andres Serrano's lips or Philip Glass' chipped tooth when you hadn't been conscious of them before. And the larger countenance seems much more of a public face, one in conversation with the masses rather than you and you alone. The image is still startlingly clear where it's most in focus – in some portraits, you can appreciate the clarity even more – but the fuzziness beyond the center is also more conspicuous; you're more attuned to what's blurred and drawn to study it. (That hazy, heavy-lidded right eye of Glass' now seems like its own essay on wearying age.) And whether it's owing to the size increase or printing, even the warmest faces seem a little less warm than in the daguerrotypes.
That's even truer of the largest images, the tapestries which include that gargantuan portrait of Close in the front room of the galleries. Woven by mechanized looms using a computer program rendered from a digital scan of the original image, they're all but indistinguishable from photographs at a distance, but the closer you get to one, the more you can read the thousands upon thousands of colored warp threads. The edges within the image soften, as in an impressionist painting, and the image as a whole flattens out. They're no less remarkable to look at – indeed, they may be more so – but they also offer a cooler representation of the subject, something akin to a map, on which you can study the topography of the face.
When you've completed that study, you may find yourself pulled back to its companion portraits, to let your eye roam over them and parse out their distinctive qualities. (All three versions of Cindy Sherman's portrait are grouped together, creating an ideal opportunity for you to compare and contrast them.) And when you leave the gallery, you'll likely do so with a keener appreciation of photographic techniques from the form's earliest days to now and what we've improved upon and perhaps what we haven't. But for sure, you'll be able to answer one particular musical question in the affirmative. Her face? Yes, you've seen it.