New York

Chuck Close


Chuck Close’s new photographs are in a real sense incomparable. The closest parallel to these mammoth Polaroid nudes—two of them nearly 7 feet by 22 feet—might be highway billboards. But no billboard has the incredibly fine grain of these two- and four-panel pieces, made with a camera that produces unique prints of up to 40 inches by 80 inches.

As with his work in other media, in this installation Close seemed intent on making the pictures hard to see. One of the walls in the gallery had been moved in half a dozen feet so that the two largest works in the show, full-lenqth male and female reclining nudes, faced each other, head to feet, across a space perhaps three yards wide. There were practical reasons for the architectural change the gallery wouldn't otherwise have had two walls long enough for the nudes—but I was told that Close had asked that the works be hung that way in order to recreate the feeling of one of his early studios, in which he had been unable to step back from the large nudes he was painting. Because of this he had to look at the works from either end—as we do now with severe perspectival shifts as a result.

The subjects in these pictures, as in all of Close’s work, are largely irrelevant to his central purpose of examining the devices by which pictorial illusion operates. In his persistent focus on the workings of hand, eye, and brain to make art, Close is like a guy who always wants to explain your jokes, or to analyze your dreams. His gleeful harping on the connections between representation and the banal marks by which it is achieved has the nettling quality of much conceptual art, which attempts to demonstrate the cultural and perceptual blind spots that society's pervasive and necessary fictions gloss over.

In turning to photography Close opens up a newer mystery, one that to many seems of a different order from the mark making of painting. But in these huge works he pinpoints precisely the paradox of the photographic mark: the split between the picture as a whole, based on the optical properties of the lens, and the minute texture of the photographic grain, based on the chemical transformation of sensitized film. Looking at a photograph involves moving back to see the whole picture—the “composition;” the arrangement of represented objects in perspectival space—and then moving in to examine the virtually infinite detail that gives the photographic illusion its enormous power. Close isolates and accentuates that split at the heart of the medium, and even goes so far as to frustrate any attempt to step back to examine the figural, compositional aspects of the picture, its essentially narrative qualities. He presses us into the grain of his photos, into the details of his nudes—the fine down of body hair, each filament precisely delineated; the nubbly expanses of the ocean of skin. The experience is overwhelming, disorienting, like that of a baby pressed close to its mother’s breast. By accentuating the mark itself apart from any other meaning (while certifying that it still has such a meaning by presenting it within the context of the stereotyped genre of the nude), Close strives for the Modernist ideal of immediate, essential experience outside the confusing complications of narrative, of history, of politics. But despite the intoxicating fascination of these works, eventually one wants to break away, to move out into the world—however much its form and even its existence depend on the shared fictions of culture.

Charles Hagan