A Master of Method

Kathleen Mellen

Amherst Bulletin

Even at the first glance, the exhibit on view at the Mead Art Museum at Amherst College makes clear that the well-known contemporary American artist Chuck Close is more interested in his creative process than in his subject: himself.

Visitors to the show of self-portraits by Close are bombarded with some 35 repeating images, including paintings, prints and other media, of the balding Close, a middle-aged man with a broad, fleshy nose, round, dark-framed glasses, and a scraggly beard and mustache. But, contrary to what one might immediately suppose, Close isn't really fascinated with his own image. Instead, he's mesmerized by the plethora of techniques he's found over the years to portray that image.

Born in 1940 in Monroe, Wash., Close graduated in 1962 from the University of Washington in Seattle, then attended Yale University in New Haven, Conn., where he received a master's degree in art before moving to Europe on a Fulbright grant.

He began making self-portraits in the 1960s, returning time and time again to that image, about the same time that he moved to the Pioneer Valley, where he taught art at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst from 1965 to 1967.

Early on, he was recognized for his photo-realism and hyper-realism techniques and by the time he was in his mid-30s, his work was already on view at the New York Museum of Modern Art.

Then in 1988, Close suffered a spinal artery collapse and became a quadriplegic. Many thought his career would be over, but Close began to paint again with a brush held between his teeth, creating large portraits using grids made with the help of an assistant, that are often composed of painted squares or rectangles on a contrasting background that resemble something akin to the overly magnified pixels of digital photography.

Since then, he has experimented with multiple techniques. Eventually he recovered some movement in his arm, and now paints with a brush strapped to his hand.

Throughout his career, even before becoming paralyzed, Close has worked from photographs that he translates to other media such as paintings, drawings, textiles and prints. Although he has had to adapt to his physical limitations, his preliminary process for his works of art has not changed: Working from those photographs, he makes a grid that he places on top of the photo and then on his "canvas," copying the image square by square.

In the title work of the exhibit, "Self-Portrait/Scribble Etching Portfolio," completed in 2000, Close set about to fully document the process by which he made a final print.

Working from a photograph of a large self-portrait oil painting done in 1997 that is on view at the Museum of Modern Art, Close first drew a grid on the photographic image and then onto 12 sheets of paper. He then projected the photographic image with the grid onto the paper and drew the design in, 12 times, with special colored pencils, adding only certain parts of the picture to each of the separate sheets. He then placed those sheets, in succession, on top of printing plates.

Lined up along one wall of the Mead exhibit are two horizontal rows comprising 12 prints each. In the step-by-step printing process, each print in the top row was drawn with just one color. On the bottom row, the corresponding print shows the progression of the portrait as each new color was added.

Twelve colors - one at a time - were laid down on 12 different plates. The progressive layering of those colors finally completes the full design that is on view at the end of the wall.

In statements that accompany Close's work at the Mead, he In his signature grid-like motif, Close has painted a canvas-full of small squares, filling each with swirls of three or four colors; sometimes he doubles the squares to create rectangles enhanced by colorful oblong shapes.

Each small square or rectangle resembles a giant pixel, with the overall image indecipherable upon close inspection. But, back up slowly and the picture emerges, almost magically.

In an artist's statement, Close describes the development of the "pixillated" images as "gradually, organic - and even stealthy."

"What it is, is: I do something; then I do something else to that; and I do something else to that; until I slowly sneak up on what I want. So, all the color mixes in the rectangle, in context, not reconceived and then executed, it's all found in the rectangle."

In one of the most fascinating of the portraits, one from 1982, Close uses handmade paper pulp in 24 shades of gray to create his image. Like his other work, the portrait is gridded. With the help of a master printer, Close assigned each tiny box in the grid a numerical value which corresponded to a shade of gray. The pattern was then used to fill each grid with the corresponding colored liquid pulp, which, when dried, fused together in a hazy, rough-textured whole.

In the end, it's not self-absorption that prompts Close to create repeated images of himself, it's a fascination with the never-ending ways in which he can do it.

"Chuck Close Self-Portrait/Scribble/Etching Portfolio, 2000," will be on view through March 18 at the Mead Art Museum at Amherst College. Hours are Tuesdays through Sundays from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and Thursdays until 9 p.m. For information, call 542-2335 or visit www.amherst.edu/mead.