Wednesday, November 2, 2011

My Own Feeble Chuck Close

Chuck Close Wannabe, 2011

I’ve always been amazed at how the artist Chuck Close creates large and extremely detailed painted portraits from hundreds of lines of little painted pixel-like blocks. Each of the blocks contains more than one color, is unlike all the others and it’s only when you pull back and look at the total impression created by the entirety of these blocks that the lines recedes from view and from the hundreds of little blocks emerges a rich and detailed  portrait.
It’s not just the design of the portraits that’s fascinating, but the way Close paints them a horizontal line at the time, like a human dot matrix printer. Working in a basement workroom, an assistant starts each new portrait by drawing a grid of diagonal lines on a giant blank canvass. He then put the canvas on a track and cranks it up through a slot in the ceiling so that Close, who is confined to a wheelchair, can paint at chest level in the studio above.
Even more amazing still and ironic for a guy who is famous for his portraits is that Close suffers from prosopagnosia, also known as face blindness. He says the intense concentration required for his paintings helps him remember the details of the faces of his subjects, elements he'd have otherwise forgotten even while painting them. (Close does keep a photograph of his subject at hand while painting.)
I've watched a couple of interesting documentaries about Chuck Close and his technique. But I don't recall that any of them explained how he figures out how to make sure that each little block has just the right colors in the right places. There are so many hundreds, maybe even thousands of blocks, and while Close is painting these large portraits he’s seeing only a small portion of a large canvas and rarely more than an arm's length from the canvas, at that. At the start little more than a corner of the canvas might be sticking up through the floor slot into Close’s studio. It would be understandable that Close might occasionally experience "sign painter's syndrome," the phenomenon in which you are so involved in the thing that's immediately in front of your eyes that you lose sight of the big picture. (When sign painters do this, they misspell words and transpose images.)
But as far as the documentaries go, Close doesn’t make these mistakes. He works from top to bottom. He works through his lines each day as long as his endurance holds up and then comes back the next day and resumes his work his assistant shoves more of the canvas up through the floor into his range.
I obviously had no such organizational skills as Close's when I took the photograph above. But even if they’re a little more strictly rectilinear than Close’s blocks and even if my picture doesn't provide so much as a clear reflection of the building from which I took the picture, it’s Chuck Close’s portraits that I think of most readily when I see this picture. When you're in a hotel in Los Angeles and happen to notice this little slice of Chuck Close-like blocks in the windows of the building across the parking lot, it's about all you can do to just take the picture and let the pixels fall where they may.

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