The artwork of Chuck Close often forces you to walk. Start close up and scrutinize the labor-intensive details and then take a few steps back and watch the intricate shapes magically coalesce into a human face.
The eight Close tapestries on display at Blue Sky Gallery will compel you to walk back — way back. That’s the only way you can fully take in the imposing black-and-white portraits that are 7- to 8.5 feet tall.
“I think anytime you have a photograph in a really large size, it can be very dramatic, especially of the human face,” says Blue Sky’s Exhibition Manager Zemie Barr.
The tapestries are Close’s newest artistic endeavor. They are derived from daguerreotype photographs that Close took of his friends Cindy Sherman, Phillip Glass, Roy Lichtenstein, Kiki Smith and other iconic artists.
“The black wool for the background absorbs so much light without reflecting any that it makes the tapestry almost like a holograph,” said Close in an interview with ARTnews. “It pushes the image forward and makes it a kind of startling illusion. Then by combining three white threads for every grayer white thread, that puffs it up. Our brain reads a figure in deep space.”
The tapestries are made in Belgium on Jacquard looms, which were invented in France in 1804. Tapestries historically were more highly prized than paintings because they took longer to create.
“My grandmother knitted and crocheted and made quilts, which had a very profound influence on me,” he told ARTnews. “Making things out of threads and big complicated things out of a lot of little things has real urgency for me. This old-time system has a history, and it’s not used up yet. It’s something to breathe new life into.”
Close’s tapestries sell for $120,000 and $150,000.
Some critics contend that the tapestries are not as visually interesting as Close’s colorfully gridded or photorealist prints of the human face. Blue Sky’s executive director disagrees.
“There’s something that’s a little more quietly dramatic. It’s not so bold as other Chuck Close works we’re familiar with. But it’s no less impressive,” says Todd Tubutis.
If you want to compare the tapestries to Close’s more traditional work, walk around the corner from Blue Sky to Augen Gallery. There you will see six of Close’s prints, including four self-portraits.
Close’s fixation with faces stems from his struggles with prosopagnosia or face blindness. It is an ailment that prevents Close from recognizing faces. Close’s art helps him commit faces to memory, he says.
“Because in real life if you move your head a half an inch, to me it’s a whole new face I’ve never seen before. But if we flatten it out — I have and I take photographs — I work from photographs and make flat things called paintings and prints. I have virtual photographic memory for anything that is flat, so it’s not an accident that I only do images of people who matter to me — family, friends, other artists,” said Close in an interview with PBS NewsHour.
On top of face blindness, Close suffers from dyslexia. He is also paralyzed from a spinal cord collapse in 1988. He paints with a device that holds a brush to his hand.
He has powered through adversity to reach the heights of the art world. He received the National Medal of Arts in 2000 and is a portraitist to Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.
“He’s a superstar,” says Reed College Art Professor Michael Knutson.
Knutson took art classes from Close at Yale Summer School in 1972. Like Close, Knutson grew up in Snohomish County, north of Seattle, but a decade later. After Close, Knutson also received degrees from University of Washington and Yale.
“He’s a really nice man. It’s amazing he’s not a jerk,” says Knutson. “Close made his mark not long after grad school. He was remarkably self-deprecating and humorous and generous to people, which is not what one often encounters when someone’s career is taking off like that. It’s something that he’s known for — that he’s loyal to his friends.”
Close consistently produces high-level art throughout his life, says Knutson.
“His work has stayed interesting and maybe gotten more interesting over the years, which is something you can’t say about many artists, particularly American artists. Most American artists I admire, I find I admire their work in their 30s and after that it kind of drops off,” says Knutson. “Close is continually exploring new terrain.”
You can explore the different terrains of Chuck Close at Blue Sky Gallery through November 3, 2013, and at Augen Gallery through November 2, 2013.