You might be able to achieve a similar effect in Photoshop and, yes, there’s certainly now also an app for that. But Chuck Close’s pixelated, exploded views of the human face predate the digital era, even if his work now relies just as heavily on the technology that it prophesied. This show begins in early 1970s New York when Close began gridding and blowing up photographs of his own head or those of his friends, family and fellow artists, filling up the numbered squares with different shades of paint, print or paper. Among his more recognisable contemporaries and colleagues is Philip Glass, whose simple black-and-white portrait has been used in so many variations by the artist over the intervening years that the composer joked that he’d become to Close what haystacks were to Monet.
Indeed, Close doesn’t make portraits as windows to the soul, but as means to an end. He dissects features into contours or terrains, suggesting landscapes as much as likenesses. His schematic, modular approach to image-making is especially suited to printmaking, but like his endlessly varying mugshots, Close never settles on one signature style, but experiments until either his will or the medium itself breaks (as it did when he attempted lithography, only for the laboriously etched limestone slab to crack in two). His paintings take months – there’s only one on show here – but the prints can take years to produce.
Aside from the dizzying range of print techniques (see right) that include pulped paper, squeegeed ink and old-fashioned woodblocking, it’s Close’s painstaking approach to each of them that impresses most about this touring survey of his career in print to date. Over a couple of walls and different print series, the numbers jump from 10 states to 12 progressions, to 14 linocuts and, eventually, 120 colours and 14,500 handmade marks. Yet the more exacting the weaving or computer-mapping process becomes, the less engaging the resultant images are. There’s something reassuring about his fuzzier-edged approximations that reflect people as organic beings, made up of atoms and fluids rather than ones and zeros. Indeed, these works can be remarkably, unfashionably non-mechanical: constructed with cake-decorating stencils, say, or by spraying ink through the waffle-shaped structure of a latticework screen pulled out of an elevator ceiling.
That Close prints (to use the title as a verb) is undeniable, but his processes and collaborations go beyond the many materials, sitters and assistants he employs. This is an artist working through adversity, too. Close suffers from face blindness and often can’t deal with features or recognise those around him, while in 1988 an illness paralysed the artist from the neck down, so that he has only regained his ability to physically create work in incremental fits and starts since. You can’t hurry printing: you have to take things step by step.