Chuck Close – portraiture, a neurological tongue twister and the return of David and Margaret…

I’ve always struggled recognising faces. I’m pretty good with some people, but there’s a select few that I have problems identifying. I call them my ’grey people’. Sometimes I find myself in comical situations having quite involved interactions as my mind does backflips trying determine through a haphazard process of elimination who the person I’m talking to is and where I’ve met them before. I rarely trouble myself with trying to remember their name – that’s a completely lost cause in most instances. I’ve been told by friends and old employers that it’s because I’m forgetful, disinterested or don’t look people in the eye properly. That I’m rude and simply just don’t care. Now I’m the last one to deny these charges, but the reality is, I actually do care. I found myself chatting with an extremely friendly woman a few months ago when she hailed me down in a carpark, honking her horn, shouting my name and offering to buy and drop off groceries at my place. I’ve been rummaging through the recesses of my mind to figure out where I know her from ever since then. I’d like to officially apologise to this lovely person on the off chance she comes across this article. I hope she sees the humour in this.  It did make me wonder if I might have a weeny problem. My recognition techniques centre around people’s build, their manner of speaking, body movements, hair and clothing and attitude towards me. Having them stay in the same location also helps. I get completely thrown when one of my ‘grey people’ decides to change context, subject of conversation, hair or clothing. I’ve talked it through with some of my friends, and they seem to fit into two categories – those that giggle and agree, and those that recoil from me looking mildly horrified. The reality is that, I’m actually not too bad. I get by. I have a system, I have strategies and I’m pretty good at bluffing. But oddly enough – I am also going through a fairly interesting portrait painting phase. The more I think about my portraits, the more it makes me wonder what motivates someone who doesn’t identify faces readily into studying faces. Admittedly my portraits have a caricature type quality – I exaggerate and distort features. Pull lines through and extend hair into creases and background curves. Sometimes the faces are so abstract mountain goats appear to be traipsing across them. It’s fun and I love doing it. Every stroke and colour is part of a larger puzzle, but it did arouse my curiosity.

Billabong-Dreaming-Robbie-Swan-by-Ilia-Chidzey-big_clean • Kel-Sees-the-White-by-Ilia-Chidzey• The-Vivisector-Patrick-White-by-Ilia-Chidzey
I’ve known for years that the incredible portrait artist Chuck Close experiences total facial blindness – or prosopagnosia if you have a knack for tricky names. He can’t recognise family members or close friends. I remember seeing his spectacular portrait called ‘Bob’ at the NGA in Canberra during my teens. Every time I went there Bob would be staring vacantly in open mouthed amazement at the visitors. He was surreal, oversized and ever so slightly unsettling. See Bob here.

Naturally, I thought Chuck would be worth a bit of investigating – why would someone with such an extreme condition dedicate his life’s work to portraiture? I didn’t have to look too far… I found this fantastic interview, where Chuck describes how his 2D memory is photographic, so the process of transferring faces into an artificial flat dimension makes it easier for him to recall features. I won’t elaborate – watch the video. It’s very interesting. It also covers some of Chuck’s other neurological issues.

What I also discovered – and this is my gem that I want to share with you, is a documentary on Chuck by filmmaker Marion Cajori.

And yes – this is where I turn into a twisted Margaret and David hybrid – except I’m not going to bicker – I hate arguing with myself in public…

Not only is Chuck Close even more remarkable than I previously thought – he struggled with various neurological issues as a child, dyslexia, the death of his father when he was 11, a spinal occlusion that left him a quadriplegic in his late 40s, his intellect, technique, tenacity and ability to communicate his artistic process is exceptional. Beautifully filmed, thought provoking, with a circle of close artistic friends including Philip Glass, there is intense exploration of not only Chuck’s techniques but the reactionary nature of art in the early 70s as it pulled away from abstract expressionism. There seemed to be a focus on method over emotion, so much so that some artists like Ad Reinhardt were creating manifestos that restrained the creative process into a few tight manoeuvres and very little else. Despite this the majority of work displayed exuded an intense depth and feeling despite the analytical nature of the artists involved. I found it mesmerising – the process that Chuck used, his dissection of the image into a grid that was then reinterpolated into what appeared to be a series of radioactive frog and goat eyeballs only to reveal an intensity in his subject matter when the viewer pulled back to view the whole rather than the segments. His ability to work in intimate detail on massive canvases towards a whole is impressive. Whether you like his work or not, his technique and the effect is remarkable. There was a discussion about the development of a visual vocabulary – the breaking down of imagery into segments that when placed together communicated an idea in it’s entirety. I know it’s not a new concept, but I do get a kick out of discussions like this. But most importantly – he had an awesome machine to manipulate his canvas. All the essential ingredients required for an fantastic art obsessive movie experience – linguistics, paint, Philip Glass, space age machinery and a swipe at Jackson Pollock… 6.5 stars out of 5

“I saw this Jackson Pollock drip painting with aluminum paint, tar, gravel and all that stuff. I was absolutely outraged, disturbed. It was so far removed from what I thought art was. However, within 2 or 3 days, I was dripping paint all over my old paintings. In a way I’ve been chasing that experience ever since.”
Chuck Close