Chuck Close, A Couple Ways of Doing Something

Austin Museum of Art

Through November 8
by Dan Boehl

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      Chuck Close, Self-Portrait, 2006
      Digital pigment print with poem (not pictured)
      Image size: 26 ½ in x 20 in
      Paper size 35 5/8 in x 47 1/8 in
      Courtesy Pace/MacGill, New York
      Made in collaboration with David Sacilotto, © Chuck Close

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      A Couple Ways of Doing Something unfolds like a poetry book, but with portraits. Chuck Close chose friends who just-so-happen-to-be famous artists as his subjects and captured their faces using different methods: daguerreotypes, digital pigment prints, tapestries and photogravure etchings. In most cases the portraits are huge, dwarfing the viewer with their gaze, but beyond the names of the subjects themselves, Philip Glass, Kiki Smith, James Turrell, Laurie Anderson, there was little to hold my attention. The exhibition, tapestries floating, prints pinned, feels like an exercise in art making. The exhibition highlights Close’s technical acumen, but shows no emotion. 

      Except for the daguerreotypes. All fifteen occupy a single long shelf near the entrance to the exhibition, and though the images are small, the luminescent black and white silver plates swim with intimacy. To circumvent the long exposure time of tradition daguerreotypes, Close illuminated his sitters with one brilliant strobe flash. The effect is a moody likeness, concrete around the nose, firm in the cheekbones, feathered at the edges. Indeed, James Turrell’s features seem to grow out of his hovering Whitman-esque beard. The sitter is sculpted from light.

      Bob Holman’s poems accompany Close’s printed scans of the daguerreotypes. Holman calls these “praise poems.” The author sums up the function of these best in his poem about Elizabeth Murray:

      Praise! Oh yes praise hey ho I do love this griot job composing praise poems/
      Is as easy as say Elizabeth Murray totally great artist Dr. Elizabeth Rose/
      Murray

      Guileless and safe, most of the poems aren’t ekphrastics at all. Rather, Holman’s “praise poems” are about the unseen work of the pictured artist. Twice removed from the sitters’ artwork, these poems are devoid of context, rudderless. Unlike Close’s work, which follows a system of set forms, Holman’s poems don’t follow a set poetic system, switching voice and structure to tackle each new sitter. Next to the technical mastery of Close, the poems come off as cursory. In an exhibition dominated by form, Holman had the opportunity to inject emotional context, but shies away in favor of flattery. 

      But A Couple Ways of Doing Something contains that rarest thing: the single amazing work of art. This perfection is the portrait of Cindy Sherman. Here she’s made plain by Close’s glaring strobe, every pore captured in the sculptural light, and unadorned. Without a costume, Sherman floats like the discovery of a precious stone. Holman’s poem goes:

      All those other portraits of me
      All those other portraits of me
      Are just portraits

      Not of me, no
      Not of me, no

      Dan Boehl is a poet. His chapbook Les MISERES ET LES MAL-HEURS DE LA GUERRE will be available from Greying Ghost this fall.

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