Corcoran exhibition lets us take a close look at Chuck Close's printmaking

Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 16, 2010

Chuck Close is magician and mythbuster all in one. With one hand, he does a trick, while with the other he shows you how it's done. The illusion? Nothing less than the artistic representation of the human face.

Over the past several decades, Close has made a career out of stunning, often monumental portraiture. Working from photographic images, the artist has used everything from abstract dabs of color to his own fingerprints to render faces. Courtesy of the Corcoran Gallery of Art's beguiling "Chuck Close Prints: Process and Collaboration," the artist, who just turned 70, pulls back the curtain on his creative practice. In one of the show's wall panels, he writes that he wanted to demystify the process "so that people understand how things happen."

Curiously, that peek backstage takes away nothing from the artist's sleight of hand. According to Corcoran curator Amanda Maddox, who organized the traveling show in Washington, even as Close demystifies his working methods, the finished product is "still really impressive to look at."

If you go, and you should, here's what you'll see: 12 faces -- including the artist's -- in more than 100 manifestations, from a silkscreen to a paper pulp collage to an etching. (Though known primarily as a painter, Close is also a prodigious printmaker. This is the first show to focus extensively on that aspect of his career.) The subjects are the artist's family and art-world friends. His wife and daughter turn up again and again, as do painter Roy Lichtenstein and composer Philip Glass.

A single likeness of wild-haired artist Lucas Samaras appears in both woodcut form and in the surface of a hand-loomed rug. You'll be tempted to roll around on it. Please don't. One black-and-white portrait of sculptor Keith Hollingworth, in mezzotint, or half-tone, is 51 inches tall; another lithograph of the same guy -- exact same pose, in fact -- is no bigger than a postage stamp.

As the show's title suggests, an examination of the process -- how these things were made -- is a big part of the presentation. Part of that process is Close's tendency to transfer images via a grid system, breaking the original into pixels, as it were. You'll read terms such as "tusche" (a kind of greasy ink) and "pochoir "(a fancy word for stencil) that you've never heard before and will probably never hear again.

Jargon aside, there's a fascination with Close's often envelope-pushing technique. Shot over a full day but reduced to about eight minutes, a time-lapse video in the exhibition shows workers at New York's Pace Prints using squeeze bottles outfitted with cake-decorating tips to squirt 13 shades of gray paper pulp into what looks like a giant cookie cutter. Shaped like a jigsaw puzzle, it a kind of contour map of Lichtenstein's face, broken down into shadows and highlight.

The scene resembles an episode of "Ace of Cakes."

But don't get lost in the sauce. With art, as with cooking, the proof is in the eating.

Or in Close's case, the looking.

It's possible to get so bogged down in Close's process that you miss the beauty of his pictures. Japanese master printer Yasu Shibata, for instance, spent nearly three years collaborating with Close on a 113-color woodblock print based on Close's painting of his niece Emma. The finished blocks are included in the show and they practically reek of perspiration.

Such effort is impressive, but what's most mind-blowing, to use Maddox's description, is that "Chuck Close Prints," which at first glance seems so much about the tedious nature of making, is in the end really all about the long, hard process of seeing.

According to Close, his subjects usually balk at receiving copies of their portraits. And Close himself has said he doesn't like looking at his own face. That might seem odd, considering that dozens of versions of it are in the show. It's no mystery, however. Most of us are used to looking at ourselves in a mirror, which flips everything, making the mole on our right cheek appear on the left.

Close, who works from photographs, sees his subjects not as they see themselves, but as others see them.

CHUCK CLOSE PRINTS: PROCESS AND COLLABORATION Through Sept. 12 at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, 500 17th St. NW (Metro: Farragut West). 202-639-1700. Hours: Open Wednesday-Sunday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursdays until 9 p.m. Admission: $10; students and seniors $8; free for members, military and age 12 and younger. Saturdays through Labor Day, admission is free. Public programs: On Wednesday at 7 p.m., the museum will screen "Chuck Close," a documentary on the artist by the late Marion Cajori. $12; $8 for members.

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