Friday, June 25, 2010

Radiolab: Chuck Close

Chuck Close. Oh boy. Chuck Close is an artist in whom I've become completely disinterested in the past few years. I don't like what he's done, I don't like how he acts, and I don't think he has created anything of substance since the 70's and that painting up there-- his first important self portrait. (Don't worry, I'll retract these negative feelings shortly, keep reading.) He spits out paintings of the same quality, context, and idea but with new faces each year, sells them for thousands upon thousands of dollars, and none of it is new. He has become a factory of one. I don't think this is wrong, mind you, I just think it's uninteresting.

However. HOWEVER. I listened to an episode of Radiolab on the train tonight that completely changed my perspective on this artist. Did you know that Chuck Close has a diagnosed mental condition known as 'face blindness'?

Turns out, Chuck Close cannot recognize faces. (Neither can Oliver Sacks! But that's a horse of a different color, let's talk about Close.) He literally doesn't recognize his wife most of the time. Cannot tell his dentist from Brad Pitt. You can talk to him at a party, walk away, and ten minutes later he will have no idea who you are. In the context of his art THIS MAKES SO MUCH SENSE. It changes everything! This gives his paintings MEANING!, PURPOSE!, and a CHILLING STATEMENT ABOUT THE HUMAN MIND! I apologize for screaming at you, but wowza. My world has shifted on its axis.

Radiolab interviewed Close recently at the World Science Festival in New York about his condition. You can listen to it here (do it!). In the interview, he reveals his reasons for painting faces, and I swear to you, I had goosebumps. While he doesn't recognize faces, he does recognize paintings, paintings of faces included. If he can flatten a face, by photographing it, and then painting it, it becomes recognizable. Therefore, he paints faces in order to connect to humans, something that we all apparently take for granted every second of every day. And he does it over and over and over again because he is chasing that feeling of connection.

Have you ever noticed that his left eyelid droops? You probably thought this was a side effect of his physical disabilities, (If you aren't aware, he's in a wheelchair, as he is paralyzed from the waist down and has very little use of his hands due to a spinal cord injury in the late 80s. Completely unrelated to the face blindness, mind you) but he revealed in the interview that it droops because he spends much of his life with one eye closed, trying to flatten faces. It doesn't really help, but he can't stop himself from trying anyway.

If you look at a Chuck Close portrait from a few feet away, it looks like an abstract painting of squares. But as you back away, the face suddenly pops out at you, and the squares turn in to Kate Moss, for example. This trick, in and of itself, is tired. But knowing Close's condition, it becomes fascinating. Through his art, Close is giving us a glimpse into his own mind and his disability. Crazy, right?

I have actually met Chuck Close multiple times. I know how that sounds, but if you've ever been to a major art event in New York City, you've probably met him too. He's everywhere. I have always faulted him for this, thinking he was a fame monger akin to, I don't know, Judy Garland and her addiction to applause. And after a while, you, like me, were probably a bit turned off by him. He seems aloof, doesn't he? And he's overly gracious to everyone he meets, and fakes acknowledgement. I've seen it! When he looks at you, its like he's looking through you, I swear. Well, that makes sense now, doesn't it? He has no idea if you are his best friend or if you're just a random redheaded gallery goer more interested in the free champagne than Kiki Smith's blurred nose.

AGAIN, turns out, he does this for a reason. He goes out in order to combat this condition. While lacking in one of the most basic senses, he CRAVES human interaction and therefore is as social and out-and-about as possible. (Oliver Sacks is the opposite, he combats the same condition by staying home and not meeting anyone ever.) By using what he refers to as 'charming techniques', Close can interact with crowds in a normal fashion. Of course this comes across as flighty much of the time, but Close doesn't seem to know that, and I absolutely love that about him.

The point is, dear reader, is that you should listen to Radiolab. Each and every episode hits you with this crazy insider scientific knowledge that you didn't even know that you wanted to know. Give it a try, and enjoy this hot summer weekend.


Gail said...

Whoa! I had no idea such a condition even existed. The poor man!!!

Jul said...

Came across your blog while googling for more info about the Radio Lab episode - which I loved to pieces. So much so that I'm writing a blog post about it. It was fun to find someone else who had the same reaction. Thanks for the good read.

John said...

Excellent entry! His art made so much more sense to me after I listened to that episode. I recently saw an exhibition of his in D.C. and mentioned to someone there that he can't recognize faces. Her jaw hit the floor. Thanks for the post!