… making us inescapably aware of the frameworks we habitually look through but not at.
Like other artists of his generation — Sol LeWitt, Richard Serra, Philip Glass — Chuck Close does the same damned thing over and over. The constrictive boxes he puts around his options, and his nonstop recycling of motifs and methods, might seem to guarantee monotony. But art is where narrowing and breadth can cohabit; and scanning from say, Close’s Big Portrait in 1968 to its equivalent in 1997, we see growth and transformation emerge from apparently straitened consistency in the way a likeness coalesces from the brickwork of his modular marks.
… Associated less with mass printing than with photography and piecework, this spitting needle [the airbrush used by Close in some of his early work] was better suited to fudging approximations — retouching small passages of halftone shading — than to pumping brassy declarations. To monumentally “copy” a close-up of a face by slowly accreting this squirter’s droplet veils was like making Mount Rushmore with a dental drill — an enterprise of tremendous perversity, a potlatch spectacle of seemingly gratuitous hand labor.
Perceptually and formally, this scale and way of working set up dilemmas of relation between units and unity, parts and whole, that appealed to Close. And looking within art, the contrast between the instantly overpowering given and the motif, and the exhausting, indigestible profusion of the visual data, perhaps had a covert affinity with the mental judo of Jasper Johns’s flags and targets, where a swift initial “reading” runs against the deliberately slow, inch-by-inch facture.
[line break added] Like the banality of the blown-up head shots themselves, though, this laborious way of making art also just seemed mammothly dumb — which was part of its offensive, subversive force. Such in-your-face dumbing-down (found contemporaneously in sculpture’s assertion of material over style, and weight over image) trumped the soup cans and serialism that had seemed so shockingly brainless a decade before.
[line break added] In a critique that was implicitly political and attuned to the dyspeptic, disillusioned radicalism of the emerging 1970s, it rejected Pop’s and Mimimal’s postures of ironic distance as frustratingly impotent, and spurned their “smart” adoption of fast-hit commercial slick — whatever the satirical or critical intent — as being too close to collusion with the dominant forces of big-time consumer society. As if updating a William-Morris-like insistence on handcraft, many young artists of the day then advanced the ritualized, even fetishized, show of rote, incremental personal labor as if it had a saving moral force of authenticity.
… The “realism” of these pictures may have only partly to do, then, with a positivist idea of truth to observed facts and more to do with the distinctly modern notion of achieving authenticity by “foregrounding” schemas of representation often ignored or taken for granted — making us inescapably aware of the frameworks we habitually look through but not at.