A Million Points of Paint

Chuck Closes portraits are a many-splendored thing

Most art disappears some time after it's hung, once your eyes grow accustomed to and stop seeing it—which thankfully is not a problem for those of us confined by our paychecks to Dogtown posters and Pizz prints. It's the rare artist whose work engages you more the longer you look at it, but Chuck Close is one. Much of his current show, "Chuck Close Prints: Process and Collaboration," at Orange County Museum of Art seems obvious at first (especially if you're half-asleep), but if you persevere it rewards by making you think.

Close, who was born in 1940, struggled with learning disabilities growing up—and has used a wheelchair since suffering a spinal aneurysm in 1988—but wisely, the informational material about the show omits this. The making of art, and your perception of art are what colors Close's work—not at all the artist's limitations, or even his subjects: a handful of average-looking people—and if you stare long enough, you won't be seeing the art at all, but rather, its elements.

It begins with one of Close's favorite subjects: himself—and four of his seemingly endless self-portraits. Anna Nicole Smith being on everyone's lips, you wish he'd picked a hot dead model to obsess over instead a balding, bearded, 30-something with glasses. But the subject is not the point here; the techniques and the results are, and the show begins to take off with his Self-Portrait (1977), a hand-ground etching that Close laboriously scratched off with an etching needle—one teeny, gridded square at a time. The dark squares, he etched in almost completely; the lightest have just one diagonal scratch across them. Stand back, and they blur together into a picture of him, but up close—which is more fun—you see all the tiny scratches and weeks of work.

This is an entirely different show up close; it gets all hazy and weirdly shaped—like an acid dream made by tweakers. His Emma, a portrait of his niece, reduces a smiling baby to a series of hand-painted squares; her eyes become a handful of curvy lines, one pupil circled in a square, the other astride the corners of four squares. Her lips are a handful of mathematical symbols, and there's no more baby until you step back. As it should be. Close makes big works, bombarding you with larger-than-life people—and so naturally, you think of them when you should be seeing their details: the lines in their face; their wrinkles; the sheen from their noses, the shine of their glasses frames—and the blobs of paint or ink that make them.

This is not just Close's show. He collaborates throughout with a variety of printmakers—woodcut artists and linoleum block print experts—though his own hand is always the most visible. But it's his tools, and to a lesser extent his processes that are ultimately as captivating as his work and his subjects.

Two of Close's most striking pieces aren't really art at all (except they are). They're Self-Portrait/Pulp and Georgia Grill, both brass grills (now covered with paint) which Close used as color separation templates (I think) to create self-portraits, or portraits of his daughter Georgia. Each resembles a three-dimensional Paint by Number painting, unpainted—and, ironically, as it hangs on the wall, each produces its own painting in shadow. Nearby, the portraits Close painted by squirting the correct hue of paint through the appropriately-numbered hole are almost as interesting as the grills. But not quite.

It continues on like this—his ephemera as intriguing as his art—until reaching what is arguably the show's apex: his Lucas series, a handful of works based on a photograph of Close's friend and fellow artist Lucas Samaras. First is a fairly straightforward linoleum cut of Samaras' face, balding and round with intense eyes. Then comes Lucas/Woodcut, a woodblock jigsaw which divides Samaras' face into several portions—and which looks for all the world like a slice of tree trunk sawed into a puzzle. Next is a proof print of Samaras' face, its highlights and lowlights exploded into dots of color—looking like a randomly-whirled circle of paint, the face just visible. Last is a rug of Samaras' face—taken from that same photo, that same linoleum print, but rendered here in a fine piece of floor covering you'd never set foot on. (It's displayed here on a platform the same size as the rug, roughly four inches off the ground—with stern signs warning not to touch.) Here, Samaras is himself an artist again: piercing gaze, pointy chin, once more human—barely. He's part man and part rug.

And, for once, you don't see Close's laboriously-done, lengthily-explained etching or one of his linoleum block prints that took days to accomplish. Your eyes dulled to the who and the how, you see what they can become.

CHUCK CLOSE PRINTS: PROCESS AND COLLABORATION, ORANGE COUNTY MUSEUM OF ART, 850 SAN CLEMENTE DR., NEWPORT BEACH, (949) 759-1122; WWW.OCMA.NET. OPEN WED. & FRI.-SUN., 11 A.M.-5 P.M.; THURS., 11 A.M.-8 P.M. $8-$10. THROUGH APRIL 22.

 
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