Chuck Close

Hevey mentioned Sunny Taylor and Lehrer as examples of artists known only within disability circles (as disabled artists), and Close as an artist known outside of those circles and as such not a ‘disabled artist’ but an artist. I am familiar with Close’s work, but haven’t really engaged with it in any depth until now.

Close is dyslexic and had a neuromuscular condition that meant he could not do sport at school, and then in 1988 he suffered the rupture of a spinal artery that left him paralysed.

He works with huge scale portraits, though he prefers to call them heads rather than portraits, “to reinforce objective distance” (article). He regards himself as a builder who “builds painting experiences for the viewer.” He works from photographs that he himself takes of the subject and then constructs his upscaled image by using a grid:

He paints, etches, makes woodblock prints or simply photographs and prints that. His work is more to do with the artisanal techniques of printing than the aesthetics of line and composition. Since his paralysis, Close has adapted his style, creating images that appear pixellated and only make sense when viewed from afar. Apparently he also suffers from prosopagnosia, otherwise known as face blindness, which may go some way to explain why he decided to paint portraits, especially of those closest to him: “I was not conscious of making a decision to paint portraits because I have difficulty recognizing faces. That occurred to me twenty years after the fact when I looked at why I was still painting portraits, why that still had urgency for me. I began to realize that it has sustained me for so long because I have difficulty in recognizing faces.”

What better name for a man who makes close up portraits?! I think that by confronting us with larger than life images of people, Close is forcing us to contemplate the human condition. The proximity creates an anxiety in the viewer: this is the ‘faciality’ that Deleuze speaks of, where the close up of a face transforms the face into an entity; rather than merely being separated from the body it becomes an object in its own right. Since it has been removed from its triple function (individuation, socialising, relational) the nude face has a power much greater than that of the nude body, an ‘inhumanity
greater than that of animals’ (Deleuze 1997, p 99). In this way, our human relationship to the face is stripped away by the close up, and we are confronted with an abstract ‘phantom’ as Deleuze put it, at which point the face “no longer reflects nor feels anything, but merely experiences a mute
fear” (ibid, p 100).

Although he is disabled, as Davis pointed out, his work is not about disability. On the other hand, just which aspect of Close’s disability is Davis referring to? As with all the disabled artists I have looked at, Close uses art as a way of expressing himself, and this came about directly as a result of his dyslexia (limiting his ability for verbal communication) and prosopagnosia (limiting his ability to recall faces out of their normal contexts). However, I suspect that Davis was referring to the more visible fact that Close is paralysed, wheelchair-bound and paints with a brush taped to his forearm. I would suggest that Close is not in the realm of disabled artists for a number of reasons. The first is that I don’t think Close views his disabilities as socially constructed problems (at least not ones that need to be addressed or expressed through his art), they are just a series of challenges that he has had to overcome and he has adapted his style and approach accordingly. This, coupled with the fact that he became paralysed long after he had already established himself as an artist (and already begun his exploration of the human face as blown up portrait), means that Close is not activist in the way that many other disabled artists are. Drawing an analogy, Garland-Thomson points out that Monet in later life began to lose his eyesight, resulting in the impressionistic ‘fuzzy’ representations of landscapes that he is famous for. In this sense, disability enabled artistic evolution: “Monet and Close did not overcome their disabilities, but, rather, they accommodated their disabilities and their art changed. They were great artists not in spite of disability but because of disability,” (Garland-Thomson 2005, p 524). Davis also pointed to the fact that although Beethoven became deaf, we do not consider his music to be ‘deaf music’. Perhaps if Beethoven had been born deaf he would be considered to have written ‘deaf music’?

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