Looming huge on the wall, Gwynne, executed in 1982, is a watercolor that is nothing short of monumental. A simple photographic head-shot of the sitter has been meticulously reproduced on a colossal scale. Even on close inspection, Gwynne bears up to scrutiny in the execution of its surface.
Unlike Pop artists who worked from found images and photographs, Close uses his source in a much more rigorous manner. He does not have the same interest in creating bold and brash recognizable images, instead taking fairly anonymous people as his subjects: 'I am not making Pop personality posters like the ones they sell in the Village. That's why I choose to do portraits of my friends - individuals that most people will not recognize. I don't want the viewer to recognize the head of Castro and think he has understood my work' (Close, quoted in 'Interview with Cindy Nemser,' in Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art, ed. K. Stiles and P. Selz, Berkeley, Los Angeles & London, 1996, p. 233). These are unfamiliar people presented on a scale that is unfamiliar.
Close's intention in creating monumental images such as Gwynne is to make us reappraise our own understanding of visual information. The artist is a guide, and presents us with new levels of texture and detail through which to appreciate the world:
'I don't know if I'm supplying any totally new information or whether it's just putting the focus on a new aspect of that information. You certainly know something about a forest by flying over it in an airplane, but it's not the same information you would get if you go through the forest and bump into the trees. In viewing my work, you can, by stepping back and looking at my paintings, get pretty much the standard, normal understanding of a head as a whole image. However, by including all the little surface details and enlarging them to the point that they cannot be overlooked, the viewer cannot help but scan the surface of the head a piece at a time. Hopefully, he gets a deeper knowledge of the forest by knowing what the individual trees look like, (Close, quoted in 'Interview with Cindy Nemser,' in loc.cit, ed. Stiles and Selz, 1996, p. 234).
Dating from the early 1980s, Gwynne shows Close looking back to his first black and white images of the 1960s. Between then and the creation of Gwynne, Close had begun to introduce color into his works. This was followed by his use of certain restrictions in his representative means in order to explore his themes, but also to explore the extent to which he could stretch the disparity between the close-up reality of the picture, and the simpler impression that it made when viewed from afar. Therefore he had created pictures which, while appearing photographic from a distance, in fact comprised vivid brushstrokes, fingerprints, dots, or other patterns.
This return to the meticulous recreation of a photo on a grand scale meant a return to his recreation of the change of focus in the work. This adds to the sense of photographic reality, while inevitably highlighting Close's incredible skill and patience in the execution of the piece. Unlike most traditional figurative paintings which show every object in blanket focus be they near or far, Close has recreated on a grand scale the subtle shift from crisp focus to blur. One has only to look at the hairs on the edge of Gwynne's head in order to appreciate the incredible skill with which he has faultlessly evoked this feeling. Looking at Close's pictures, it is easy to see the photographic nature of the source image because of this, and yet the irony is that this system of representation was itself invented because of the shortcomings of normal painting practice, which themselves disrupt the way that we see in reality:
'The decision evolved partly out of a problem I had with making a painting about how my eyes focused on a still life. When I focused on the pitcher in the foreground, it was sharp. Then when I looked at the drapery behind the pitcher it was in sharp focus too. No matter where I looked all parts of the still life seemed to have equal focus. Now I knew this phenomenon was not true of natural vision since peripheral vision is always blurred. Suddenly it occurred to me that if I was really interested in the problem of focus, the best thing was to work from a photograph where all the information was nailed down and I could focus on blurred as well as sharp information' (Close, quoted in H. Kern, 'Chuck Close: The artificiality of reality and the reality of art', in Chuck Close, exh.cat., Munich, 1979, p. 12).
Close at work on Gwynne, 1982 Courtesy PaceWildenstein
Chuck Close, Self-Portrait, 1968, private collection