A well publicised retrospective at the Reina Sofia occasions this post, although the web site provides only a few small reproductions. Reproductions in any case present special difficulties for commentary on Close, since the paintings are firstly of photography and photography of them in turn all but conceals salient features. The works also tend to an imposing scale, often 108 X 84 “ – 274 X 213 cm, which compounds the problem in judging reproductions. Still, Close remains a highly regarded figure, a key Photo-realist and a post can at least explain this standing a little.
Photo-realism continues the project started by Pop Art, contrasting print to painting, the work of multiple instances against the work of sole instance, as a way of highlighting the difference, defining painting in a new way (see also Post 16). Photo-realist painting samples certain qualities of photography and uses distinctive resources of painting to do it, ranges between camera mechanisms, print and publishing stages. Photo-realism in this sense covers much more than those usually grouped under the label, applies as much to artists such as Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter. However differences between a Photo-realist work and its source photograph(s) are not always an effective or interesting sample, much of it diligent but uninspired and Photo-realism, rarely finds a rigorous and articulate champion. But in the case of Close, the style finds a compelling exponent.
His work initially concentrates on focus and depth. It does not deal in vast depth, just the depth of facial features, generally viewed from the front and treated to a radically narrowed depth of field for focus. Crucially, the dramatic enlargement underlines the necessary selection and intervention by the artist, even in a seemingly straightforward and systematic ‘copy’. For instance, it is notable that the artist excludes matters of texture of print, or slide to surface, grain of film or colour separation incident. Instead the artist maintains modelling and tone just where the photographic content gives way to noise. This result is an extreme gradient in depth of field. In works such as Self Portrait (1967-68) or Frank (1969) the result is a spectacular clarity to individual skin pores and strands of hair, an extra softening of focus at the shoulders and back of head. It is this exaggeration that samples depth of field for photography, in ways unavailable to photography.
The effect is unsettling, but curiously unreal. After a short time the heads come to seem more like superior waxworks, because the enormous detail and precision give them an unnatural stillness. Our perception of faces and portraits resists the kind of scrutiny Close engineers. Even a high speed photograph cannot deliver this depth of field or flared softening. Close is able to ‘put more into them’ than the source photograph, as he readily attests on many occasions, (frustratingly, none available on the web) but the standards of realism make this something other than ‘life’. And this is not a shortcoming but the insight: a demonstration of how photography conditions realism; of ways that painting points to it.
The divorce of photograph from print texture naturally creates interest in the supporting surface to the painting. Close’s air-brushed, methodical glazing deals in the thinnest of surfaces, a fastidious rigour. Literally and metaphorically the work is ‘flat’. Later developments retreat from this degree of focus for photograph and flatness for painting. With the greater prominence of a grid and a looser integration of tones, in works such as Kik (1993) or the woodcut Emma (2002) Close now invests liveliness in the intervening method and surface – in the noise - even as focus and realism recede. The sources remain photographs, but the sample is now of printing and colour separation, albeit granted a latitude not available to Close with depth of field.
Photo-realism dissipates by the late 70s, qualities sampled broaden, are less distinctive of one print form or another, than of shared genres. Remnants are still discerned, in the tracing methods of Lisa Ruyter, the long lens compositions of Eberhard Haverkost, the dramatic close-ups of Marilyn Minter, to offer three diverse examples. Close stresses focus against surface, is never close to his subjects, unless strict with painting. His part has been to show that focus can start too sharply, end too softly, if focus is a property of camera and printing. His painting demonstrates that surface and support can be a matter of life and death where realism and portraiture are concerned. Painting, as the work of sole instance, establishes vital differences to print, even while adhering closely to its systems, rebuilds painterly resources by this; exchanges samples for more challenging versions.