A version of this story appears in the Sunday Life section of The Oklahoman.
Chuck Close maps faces in his artwork
The Oklahoma City Museum of Art’s new special exhibit “Chuck Close: Works on Paper” features 88 of the National Medal of Arts recipient’s innovative portraits.
Chuck Close thinks of a face as “a road map of a life.”
And the visionary artist has experimented with myriad ways of rendering those “road maps,” with some results measuring almost 6 feet tall.
“You’re looking face to face at a person’s face, and you’re looking at such large scale that instead of looking at in life-size, you’re looking at it beyond life-size. And that’s why it really makes the visitor stop in their tracks,” said Oklahoma City Museum of Art Curator Jennifer Klos.
“And then they will be wondering ‘How did he create this?’”
The museum’s new special exhibition “Chuck Close: Works on Paper” showcases the many inventive printmaking techniques the National Medal of Arts recipient has used to depict human faces, including the celebrity ones of actor Brad Pitt, model Kate Moss, composer Philip Glass and fellow artist Robert Rauschenberg, along with his own now-famous self-portrait.
“This collection of 88 works really presents a marvelous overview of the career and the accomplishment of Chuck Close, who is the foremost living contemporary American artist,” said museum President and CEO Michael Whittington.
“This is the first time that the work of Chuck Close has been presented in Oklahoma in such a comprehensive fashion.”
Close, 73, has been a leading figure in contemporary art for the past four decades. The Monroe, Wash., native came to the fore in the early 1970s with the rise of photorealism.
“That’s when he started using the grid to grid off his photographs as a means to transfer the images to his canvas. He started out creating these hyper-real paintings. The way his career has really grown and expanded, he goes well beyond the photorealism movement today, but he was certainly one of the founding members,” Klos said, adding the museum exhibited two of Close’s paintings earlier this year in the special exhibit “Photorealism Revisited.”
“He was interested in detail in a very early point in his career.”
In 1972, the painter delved into printmaking, which in its most basic forms involves transferring ink onto paper using a plate run through a press or squeezing ink through a screen onto paper.
“This exhibition has some of the traditional printmaking techniques: We have etchings and silkscreens and woodcuts. But then we also have a variety of these techniques he’s utilized that go well beyond even pushing the boundaries of what we think of as printmaking,” Klos said.
“He uses handmade paper pulp and he will actually apply it to the work in a stencil format in very, very many layers. And it takes well over six hours with a team of sometimes three to five people.” … It is really his artist genius and artist vision that’s really carried out in a very collaborative process.”
One wall in the exhibit is devoted to explaining his techniques. The first-floor gallery also includes a time-lapse video of the creation of a paper pulp collage, a drawing station where visitors can try the University of Washington graduate’s grid method and a giant cube puzzle that will prompt them to closely study some of his works.
“There is an installation that includes 25 works known as the ‘Scribble Etching’ series actually created by Chuck Close to demystify the printmaking process,” Klos said. “There’s complexity, there’s mystery behind printmaking because it might be an artistic medium that people haven’t participated in … and it’s just quite different than picking up paint and a paintbrush.”
Curtis Jones, an associate professor of printmaking at the University of Oklahoma, said Close collaborates with master printmakers and brings inventive ideas to the process. He hopes that the exhibit gives people a deeper appreciation of the versatility and value of the art of printmaking.
“He definitely takes it seriously as part of his practice to do these things. I think he wants to get away from that idea that a lot painters that come to printmaking have, that it’s kind of (making) products for galleries to have more things to sell at different price point,” said Jones, who also attended UW and went to a couple of Close’s guest lectures there.
“Good artists, artists like him, don’t see it that way. … We’ve seen a lot of innovation from him, from Jasper Johns, from Rauschenberg.”
Along with admiring his artistic prowess, Jones said he considers Close an inspirational person. Close overcame dyslexia as a child and went on to graduate from UW and later Yale. In 1988, a collapsed artery in his spine left Close partially paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair; he was able to continue painting using a brush strapped to his arm with a Velcro harness.
“His spirit, his perseverance, his personal story is just so amazing,” Jones said.
In addition, Close suffers from Prosopagnosia, also known as face blindness, which impairs his ability to recognize faces.
“Chuck Close is known saying that he focuses on faces and by interpreting those in all his works of art, he then will know that face so much better,” Klos said.
In his “Face Book,” Close says that everyone reads faces and develops ideas about the people behind them.
“They may have laugh lines if they have laughed their whole lives, or they may have furrows in their brow if they have been angry or worried a lot,” Close says.
“When somebody has lived a relatively active life, whatever happened to them can show on their face.”
“Chuck Close: Works on Paper”
From: The collections of Jordan D. Schnitzer and his family foundation.
When: Through Feb. 16.
Where: Oklahoma City Museum of Art, 415 Couch Drive.
Information: 236-3100 or www.okcmoa.com.