Up close and personal 

Chuck Close's self-portraits connect the dots

The "reigning portraitist of the Information Age," according to NPR, sits on the skyway level of the High Museum's Wieland Pavilion.

He's talking about his work in a room filled with images of his likeness from the "angry young man" phase of 1967, a glaze of stubble on his defiantly jutting chin and a cigarette cocked in his lips.

In the flesh, Chuck Close now looks every inch the New York artist with his black leather jacket, black turtleneck and black pants, topped off with the black watch cap his assistant hands to him when he complains that his head is cold.

Gallery-goers in their parallel audio-tour universe shuffle through the exhibition, perhaps unaware that one of the most important contemporary artists working today, the Chuck Close, the very man whose self-portraits hang inches from their noses, is in the house.

Since the 1960s, Close has stayed true to his name, moving in close in his paintings to construct often epically scaled portraits of himself and such art world friends as sculptor Richard Serra, artist Kiki Smith and composer Philip Glass out of individual dots of paint.

At the High, Close's interest in portraiture takes a navel-gazing turn in the traveling exhibition originated by the Walker Art Center and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Chuck Close: Self-Portraits 1967-2005 takes a surprisingly intimate look at the process and personality behind this great big icon of contemporary art. "Over the years, I make about nine or 10 paintings before I have a show, and I usually do one self-portrait for each show. It's sort of interesting to watch my hair go away or my eyeglasses change."

But this show is different. "Normally there are about nine other people next to me. Now I'm in an exhibition in which there's only me and it just seems so unbelievably narcissistic. I find it a little creepy," he laughs.

And yet somehow, despite the Big Brother canvases looming over the galleries like Soviet-era Stalins, there is an intimacy and lack of ego in the show. The copious illustrations of Close's working method and the sense that his own visage has become his putty make viewers feel like collaborators in his process. Chuck Close: Self-Portraits 1967-2005 offers conceptual engagement and a keyhole into his methodology that makes the work accessible.

"I think everyone is fascinated with how art happens," acknowledges Close, who compares the show to a look behind the curtain of The Wizard of Oz. "People seem to really enjoy the opportunity to decode and demystify the process."

The uniqueness and ideas contained in Close's technique have made him such a long-term critical success, able to withstand not only the faddish fluctuations of the art market, but personal travails like the collapsed spinal artery in 1988 that left him confined to a wheelchair. Being a quadriplegic did not change Close's renown or even his style, only his working methods, which now entail having an assistant tape a brush into his hand in order to paint.

Working from photographs, Close reduces the photo image to a grid (a process viewers can see in this illuminating exhibition) and then builds his paintings from small dots or blobs into often huge portraits. The end result is a photo-realist second-generation portrait that bears some resemblance to the pixilated images of the media age.

"People often think it has to do with computers and pixels and that's absolutely not the case," says Close. "I was doing these dot things before computer-generated images came along."

Close graduated from the Yale University School of Art and Architecture in 1964 and his early influences were the abstract expressionists, though his own work evolved in the midst of two of the most significant and divergent movements of the day.

"I've always said about my generation that we climbed out of the same primordial ooze together onto dry land and then went our separate directions. But the things that formed us had to do with minimalist issues like extreme, self-imposed limitations and paring down and reductive issues. And pop art made it possible to look at images in a totally different way."

Though informed by a variety of art traditions, Close says the inspiration for constructing his wall-swallowing paintings grew out of his own personal limitations and panic at being "overwhelmed by 'how do I do this big thing?' So I break it down into a lot of little bite-size decisions. There's something a little like knitting or crocheting or quilting -- you do this activity and it's calming."

Maybe it's the proximity to the concurrent The Quilts of Gee's Bend show of handmade Alabama quilts, but in person Close's work evokes the humble, soothing, deeply human element of craft more than it does technology or the media. "My grandmother made quilts and crocheted tablecloths. I saw the kind of Zen-like peace that you can get from an activity like that."

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