Chuck Close: Works on Paper at MMA/La Mirada

I think what I appreciate most about Chuck Close’s faces is the way they make eye contact with the viewer.  At the fabulous exhibit of Close’s works on paper at the Monterey Museum of Art/La Mirada, one has the sense of people who are “right there,” individuals whose presence, summoned up and transformed through an astonishing array of printmaking techniques, seems to hover in a space beyond art, a space of authentic human connection.  Close has endured all his life a condition called prosopagnosia, or the inability to recognize faces; his extraordinary career, which revitalized portraiture as a viable “post-modern” art genre, is a testament to art’s power to bring relief and healing to even the most acute forms of suffering.

Here are some of the techniques used by Close for the works in this exhibit: etching with aquatint and engraving; lithograph; silkscreen; linocut; stenciled handmade paper woodcut; spitbite etching; monochrome pigment print chine colléd on waterpaper; photogravure; silk tapestry.  Each of these different techniques produces a different effect; one senses the drive to experiment, to explore fully the process of creation.

Here are two more techniques, both self-portraits from 2007: In “Watermark Self-Portrait” (light and shade watermark, abaca and cotton fiber pigmented with carbon black), Close’s face seems to be simultaneously emerging and receding from an indeterminate shadowy space; in this rendering, the artist is a liminal, ghostly figure, at once solid and liquid.  In “Self-Portrait/Anamorphic” (engraving with embossment on white handmade paper, polished stainless steel cylinder and wooden box/platform), the steel cylinder gathers the dark engraved fragments and reflects them back to the viewer, who is an integral part of the piece, for the image is constantly mobile, shifting in size and position with the viewer’s own movements.  In this work, too, the face of Close seems both to recede and project.

My favorite work in the show is “Leslie/Fingerprint/Silk Collé” (carbon transfer etching on silk chine collé, 1986), a portrait of his now ex-wife fashioned from applications of hundreds of Close’s fingerprints.  The artist’s fingerprints—that iconic image and symbol of human individuality—overlap in repeating, layered patterns to create a powerful portrait of a woman’s face, as if through the application of touch he might find a way to recognize her face, to touch her in a way his brain cannot facilitate.  A deeply moving meditation on identity, connection and isolation, this mesmerizing print also takes on an aura of loss when one learns that Close and his wife have recently divorced after 42 years of marriage.

More than most print exhibits, this show is also a celebration of paper.  Several of the works are made of handmade pressed paper pulp, out of which the image seems both to dissolve and come into focus.  “People are clouds,” Proust once observed, suggesting the way that identity is always in motion, no matter how fixed or permanent we may think we are.  Close’s genius is to apply that idea in his art at the very basic level of material and technique.

Some of his works, like his photogravures, appear “photographic.”  Yet a photograph usually consists of an image that occupies a printed space but is not changed by it, similar to a movie being projected on a screen.  In most instances, the power of a photograph lies wholly in its image.  In Close’s “Self-Portrait/Photogravure” (2005), the subtle textural qualities of paper enable a play of softness and clarity—an ear receding into darkness, the tangle of his beard pressing forward sharply—placing the image in a dimensional field of uncertain proportions.  It is as if we are constantly being remade, in a constant state of becoming, of recognizing ourselves, now pulling away, now moving forward, but always moving, always reaching toward a better self-understanding.

“Chuck Close—Works on Paper, 1975-2012, from the Collections of Jordan D. Schnitzer and his Family Foundation,” at the Monterey Museum of Art/La Mirada.  This exhibit has been extended through Sunday, March 31.  On Saturday, March 9, at 2 pm, the Museum will screen a documentary about Close by Marion Cajori.  (The film is also on continuous loop in one of the galleries.)