Monday, August 16, 2010

4 Reasons to Love Chuck Close

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Chuck Close
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Last week, artist Chuck Close appeared on The Colbert Report, and he killed. Stephen Colbert took the comic lead, and Close backed it up with perfect deadpan timing. But the interview also prompted a few late-night musings about art and artists. I now have 4 new reasons to love Close.

1. Size Matters
As Colbert notes, Close is known for his giant portraits: "Do you have enormous friends? Why do you choose this scale?" Funny, but Close's answer is better: "I used to say, the bigger they are, the longer they take to walk by, and therefore the harder they are to ignore." That is about as sensible a reason as I've heard for the super-sized art that has proliferated so since Close began making his paintings. (Could we say, in fact, that Close helped create the trend with his work?) I've always thought that the popularity of big art has something to do with the amount of visual distraction we face in our multi-media, broadband world. Maybe, after all,  it's simply that it takes longer to walk by. Close's forthright answer is bracing, which leads me to my second reason for loving Chuck Close....

 2. Inspiration Follows Strategy...
Rightly, we honor artists because they see things and do things and take chances that most of us can't, don't, and won't. Colbert falls into that way of thinking (listen to his voice take on a slight affect, as though he's talking to someone whose first language isn't English, as if artists are alien-like) when he asks Close why he started doing representational portraits back in the day when abstraction was king. "Did that put you on the outs with the elites?" he asks. Close's answer: "Well, painting was dead, and representational paintings was even deader, and portraits were beyond the pale--nobody wanted to do it. So I thought, well, this was a good area to go into so I won't have much competition." Close was almost certainly being a bit disingenuous--charmingly so--but there has always been an aspect of marketing in art (being charming and disingenuous on a TV show is probably a powerful marketing tool). And there are more ways for creative people to market themselves now than ever before. We get so caught up in the awe of creativity that we forget that it's also a product.

3. ...Or Vice Versa
Having joked about his "hit 'em where they ain't" art strategy, Close gets to talk with Colbert about method and inspiration, which, it becomes clear, is indeed the motivating force behind the art (whew!). He takes "pleasure" in the intricacy of the work. Colbert asks Close if the buyers of his work are simply rewarding his OCD...and actually that's a pretty good question, for any artist. I already knew that in 1988 Close suffered a seizure that left him paralyzed from the neck down. (After rehabilitation, he learned to work in new ways. Filmmaker Marion Cajori focused on the method and the impact of Close's work in a 1998 short called  Chuck Close: A Portrait in Progress.)

I didn't know until the Colbert interview that Close also suffers from prosopagnosia--a disability that renders him unable to recognize other humans by their faces. He didn't become a portraitist despite the condition, but because of it.

4. Humor Helps, As Long As It's the Truth
We want our artists to suffer, sort of like football fans want NFL players to hit hard. It's part of the purity of the game. Jokingly, Close told Colbert that he suffers because his portrait of President Clinton hangs in the National Portrait Gallery between portraits of President George H.W. Bush and President George W. Bush.
Or maybe he wasn't actually joking, but revealing something true. And that's the artist's prerogative.

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