Friday, 5 July 2013

Big Heads

Chuck Close, 'Self Portrait', oil on canvas, 240 x180cms, 2006
I finally completed reading ‘The Portraits Speak: Chuck Close Interviews 27 of His Subjects’ the other evening and am left feeling rather bereft now. It has been such a great companiable read over the last couple of months but also an education and inspiration, offering much needed food for thought which is certainly influencing my thinking in the studio at the moment.
For those who are not familiar with his work, Chuck Close, now 69, is one of the world’s most well-known painters, who in a career spanning over forty years is recognised for his multitude of different ways to ‘skin the same cat’ in his large scale  portraits.  His subjects over the years, as well as featuring various close family members, have always been his friends. These friends however,   happen to make up some of the most important and interesting artists in the New York art world where he lives and works. Hence this book makes a fascinating read with a wide range of interviews with some of them.
'Alex', oil on canvas, 1988
So we have artists as diverse as Richard Serra, Elizabeth Murray, Eric Fischl, Judy Pfaff, Roy Lichtenstein, John Chamberlain, Richard Artswager, Janet Fish, Lorna Simpson, Joel Shapiro, Alex Katz, Mark Greenwold, Philip Glass, and many others all discussing an equally diverse range of art-related topics, from working with galleries and dealers, the 70’s women’s movement, race and gender, learning disabilities and education, public and audience, materials and concepts, and the contextual influences of the day. I enjoy reading stuff like this much more than fiction, and am fascinated in reading about other’s creativity and lives, especially when told by the artists themselves. Close’s paintings are viewed as an important ‘portrait’ of the New York art scene, and this book is a perfect complement to them. When it was first published in 1998 (I think) a copy was placed in every public library across America.of the most original, challenging, creative and important artists in the post-war period.

'Mark', watercolour on canvas, 240 x 180cms, 1971

In relation to my own work, I’ve become again interested In Close’s assertion that it is very liberating to place limits on your work and to explore your ideas within these. I say again, as it was when I first became a fan of Close (who incidently is a quadroplegic after the collapse of a spinal artery in 1988, an tragedy he calls 'The Event') after visiting his retrospective at the Hayward Gallery in 1999 and reading the accompanying catalogue that I became exposed to some of these ideas of imposing limitations, getting rid of the hand in the work, presenting subject matter in a very flat-footed and even way, instead of more expressively, and  began looking at minimalist painters such as Ad Reinhart etc. It is no less a thing to say that exhibition changed my life, and offered up a route away from all the expressionist excess of my work at the time and lead me to soon after to start making my own flat-footed, coolly painted portraits which I made for about ten years. Close’s limitations became where he only used black acrylic applied with an airbrush for those early photo-realist works, throwing away all his brushes and evidence of his hand, and working incrementally, square after square by using a grid to transfer his photos to the canvas. I’ve never been able to do something as radical, but did impose certain limitations: for a long time all my paintings were a deliberately banal A1 standard size, all the heads presented frontally, and I tried to reduce the amount of marks I would use and paint in a deliberately unexpressive way.
'Big Self Portrait', acrylic on canvas, 270 x210cms, 1969

It is only since developing away  from this in the last five years as other interests have naturally took hold, and I’ve moved away from portraiture, that older more expressive and my more  impetuous tendencies have returned as I’ve sought to seek some sort of footing in making landscape inspired work. The recent motorway paintings though have helped me ground things again, and re-connecting with Close and some of his peers by way of this book, it has helped me think more clearly about the importance of striving to always be tough with the work, and more importantly, original (and how being influenced by others doesn’t necessarily get in the way of this). 
So, I’m taking things more slowly in the studio at the moment….

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