Thursday, March 6, 2008

The magnificent way

Photographer Chuck Close and poet Bob Holman do it differently.

Published in the Weekly Volcano, March 6, 2008

Pictured: Chuck Close, Andres Serrano, 2006. Courtesy of Pace/MacGill, New York, and the artist. © Chuck Close, courtesy the Aperture Foundation.

Chuck Close is something of a one-trick pony, but he does that one trick magnificently. He does portraits of his friends in an almost endless variety of media and techniques, usually close-ups with sharp focus on the center of the face and fading along the edges. This internationally famous artist who grew up near Tacoma and went to school at the University of Washington first became famous in the 1960s for his stark, in-your-face photographic realism — images of faces seen so close and in such gigantic scale that every pimple, scar and wrinkle was seen in almost microscopic detail.

From the beginning, he used an enlarged grid to painstakingly paint in the details. In the ’80s and ’90s he began filling the grids with scribbled marks and decorative patterns that looked wavy and out of focus up close but became crystal clear when seen from a distance. This was a highly idiosyncratic and personal way of updating pointillism. His approach to the subject never changed, but his methods evolved, constantly finding new ways to do the same thing and doing it in a range of media from oil paint to holograms to silk screens to tapestry and even paintings in which every “brushstroke” was a fingerprint.

Now showing at Tacoma Art Museum is a collaborative project two years in the making between Close and the poet Bob Holman — visual and word portraits of themselves and their friends — titled A Couple of Ways of Doing Something.

Close based these portraits on experiments with daguerreotypes — an antiquated photographic process updated as digital prints, tapestries, and photogravures. According to a museum press release, the photographs were taken especially for this project although I’d be willing to bet my house that the photo of composer Phillip Glass is one originally taken in 1969, from which he has created perhaps hundreds of images. Among the friends pictured in this exhibition are the late, great Elizabeth Murray (Holman’s wife), Laurie Anderson, Andres Serrano, Cindy Sherman, James Siena, Lorna Simpson, Gregory Crewdson, Carroll Dunham, Kiki Smith, James Turrell, Ellen Gallagher, Cecily Brown, Lyle Ashton Harris, Elizabeth Peyton, Terry Winters, Lisa Yuskavage, and Robert Wilson. Plus there are self-portraits of Close and Holman. Each photograph is accompanied by a praise poem by Holman.
This show “underscores the importance of collaboration in Close’s recent projects” and “honors the long friendships and mutual respect he shares with his subjects,” says Rock Hushka, curator of contemporary and Northwest art.

“People think that if you have a photographic image, there is pretty much only one thing you can do with it, that because of its iconography, it is fixed,” Close has said. “But changing the medium, the method of mark-making, and the scale transforms the experience of that image into something new.”

The images are dramatic, especially the tapestries, which I’m told have upwards of 10,000 lines of thread each. They all appear black and white and from a distance have the antique look of the daguerreotypes they are taken from. But seen up close there is subtle coloration, mostly red and brown threads in the shadows. Stand inches in front of these tapestries and you are drawn into clouds of depth in the shadows and edges. The gradual changes from sharp focus to edges that look like out-of-register printing and fade to fog create an almost dizzying visual illusion.

And as you are looking at these images and reading Holman’s praise poems (his version of an ancient African tradition), you cannot help but feel that you are being granted a private look into the subjects.

The poems are witty and inventive. If you happen to be familiar with Glass’ music or Murray’s paintings and Sherman and Serrano’s photographs, then the poems will have enhanced meaning. One of the funniest is Holman’s poem in praise of himself, which is presented as a letter to him from “the rest of the world except for you.”

[Tacoma Art Museum, A Couple of Ways of Doing Something: Photographs by Chuck Close, Poems by Bob Holman, Tuesday-Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Third Thursdays 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., Sunday noon-5 p.m. through June 15, 1701 Pacific Ave., Tacoma]

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