Friday, February 10, 2012

Adventures at the Wichita Art Museum #8: Chuck Close and Provincetown artists

An unidentified man looks at a jacquard tapestry of a Chuck Close self-portrait at the Austin exhibition in August of 2009. The original is a large image, so be sure to click to enlarge. Here is the exhibition in book form. Image found here.

I will confess: I visited the WAM last Saturday because I didn't want to start my morning off by doing laundry. A quick perusal of the website, and the Chuck Close exhibit was the first thing to pop up. "Hey! I've heard of him!" So off I went--not expecting much, I confess.

More below the fold. Short review: The WAM will be well worth visiting for the next couple of months, even on days when you have to pay. Make that "especially on days when you have to pay": I for one want to do what I can to support more exhibits of the quality that are/will soon be there. The roof repairs that had most of the second floor closed have been completed, and the place is jammed with things to see. Even that part devoted to pieces from the permanent collection looks a little different these days, for reasons I'll talk about in a later post.

A Couple of Ways of Doing Something, from what I gather, has been making the rounds in this country for the past three or so years and has finally made it here. It's a rather unassuming title for an exhibition that really must be seen in person in order to appreciate fully. The show consists of portraits of Close himself and various artist friends of his (most I didn't know, but those I did were Laurie Anderson, Philip Glass, Andres Serrano, and Cindy Sherman) reproduced in various image-preserving media: Close started with daguerreotypes, then made copies of them in digital pigment prints, photogravures and, finally, the jacquard tapestries, which were woven with a digital loom.

[Edit (Saturday, Feb. 11): These reproductions of the daguerreotypes, just to be clear, are not mere copies in other media. They have a common origin, but in each iteration they become a different image. In this excerpt from a review of a short story collection by William Gibson, Margaret Wappler talks about Gibson's appreciation for "the copy": "Not the original, because as recontextualization, mash-ups, memes and other clever varietals of simulacra have possibly forever detonated our sense of originality and authenticity, the first is simply the start of an idea and not necessarily the best iteration, at that. Instead, Gibson knows that each copy adds more nuance to the object of our cultural fascination, imparted in its own weird, sometimes trashy but wholly individual code." Though Wappler is speaking of so-called exact copies here, I think that something very much like this dynamic is at work in the Close exhibit.]

Never was an artist so well surnamed for the kind of art he produces. Close got his start in photorealist painting, and when he moved to photography the watchword of closeness came with him. All the images are extraordinary, each in its own way: the daguerreotypes for their overall sharpness; the digital pigment prints for creating such saturated images that, in some instances, their actual skin seems to be there, reflecting light, and not an image of their skin. (And I know I'm not saying this well. You have to see them in person to see what I mean.) As for the tapestries . . . the picture of the tapestry that you see above does not do it justice. That picture of Close on the tapestry is not printed on the fabric but is actually a woven image. What's more, you must stand about as close to it as the man in the picture is before you can actually see that it's woven and not printed--the image is that precise, the threads that thin (they appear to be about the thickness of standard sewing thread).

In addition to the images, the prints are accompanied by another "way of doing something": poems by the founder of the first Poetry Slams, Bob Holman. These are pretty experimental in terms of both language and layout; I'll confess to thinking that in many cases I felt as though I had to work too hard to get much out of them. But one poem's stanzas, if that's the right term, were laid out as though it were a genealogical chart, which struck me as a really interesting idea. I also liked the two-line poem that accompanied the picture of Robert Wilson: "Not looking at something/Is looking at something."

Technique--and, thus, a kind of virtuosity--are what is on display in this exhibit. But what is also on display is that in the subgenre of hyperrealistic reproduction of images, the media aren't interchangeable. Each reveals some quality of the image the others are less suited for. Moreover, they serve as something like a survey of these technologies, with the digital loom simultaneously being a quite advanced technology and yet, via the weavings it produces, one that is quite ancient. Anyone interested in photography or, more generally, the mechanical reproduction of images, or, of course, Chuck Close, will want to see this exhibit.

The Tides of Provincetown is another sort of survey: a sprawling selection of paintings (it's not just hanging in the downstairs galleries; they have pieces hanging in hallways, too) by over 100 different artists associated in some way with Provincetown, Massachusetts, a coastal community which toward the end of the 19th century began attracting artists and, in the ensuing decades, has become one of this country's most important artist communities. Because the exhibit covers the better part of a century, what's on display serves as something like a visual survey of American art: from the late realism of Charles W. Hawthorne and American Impressionists all the way to the Abstract Expressionists of the '50s and '60s Pop art. You've heard of lots of the folks whose works are here--Edward Hopper, Mark Rothko, Andy Warhol, Milton Avery, Adolph Gottlieb, Franz Kline--but I think the better reason to see this show really is to get a visual sense, via work produced in association with one place, of the shifting, changing nature of 20th-century American art.

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