Those who found the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art's inaugural show in its new space, "Between the Lakes: Artists Respond to Madison," a little perplexing will take instant comfort in MMoCA's new exhibition.
"Chuck Close Prints: Process and Collaboration" (on view through Oct. 8) presents Close's iconic subject matter - large-scale portraits of himself, friends and family - through a wide range of printmaking techniques. While "Between the Lakes" was more elusive and conceptual, Close's prints have an immediate impact. Some portraits are over five or six feet high, and it's hard not to be wowed by them.
Yet saying that these prints have instant impact shouldn't be taken to mean that they are simplistic. As the show's title indicates, it spotlights the various techniques Close, now 66, has used to render the human image. His methods span etching, aquatint, lithography, Japanese woodcut and many other print techniques. Some of Close's printing plates and blocks are also on display to illuminate his methods. Some prints are in riotous color, other in shades of gray.
It's an absorbing show for those who are fascinated by how things are made - and a little exhausting for those who find such things hard to follow. (If you're in the latter category, don't fear - MMoCA has a series of educational events accompanying the show beginning Aug. 4; see mmoca.org for details.)
Close's art is interesting not just for its technical mastery or eye-popping scale. Surface impact gives way to an intriguing tension between the complexity of the various mediums and the human interest of the faces themselves. Process and subject - traditionally, the means and the end - jockey for attention in the viewer's mind.
Close's subjects, limited as they are in number, become familiar: his face; his wife, Leslie; his daughter, Georgia; composer Philip Glass; artist Lucas Samaras; and others from the art world. Close works from photographs of his sitters, not from life, so these particular views of these individuals quickly grow recognizable. Because of this, the viewer's interest shifts back to how they are rendered, and not how they appear in this or that pose.
Some of Close's most appealing prints are his fingerprint images, such as "Leslie/Fingerprint," a 1986 print of his wife. Her image - wavy hair, large eyes, hoop earrings - has been rendered through the impressions created by Close's inked fingers on a Mylar sheet and later transferred to a copper etching plate. The result is surprisingly detailed, a well-balanced marriage of high-tech and, quite literally, high-touch.
Yet large-scale, complex prints such as these don't simply happen. They're typically the result of concerted experimentation and collaboration between the artist and various master printers, including those at Madison's own Tandem Press. It's clear, looking at this show of roughly 100 prints and working proofs, that Close has had a remarkably consistent vision over the course of his career. But it's equally clear that he could not have achieved all he has without the aid of skilled master printers who have helped him realize that vision.
"Chuck Close Prints" - which actually includes paper-pulp collages, textiles and other nonprint works - is a traveling exhibition making its only Midwestern stop. It is a testament not only to the sheer doggedness of Close's art, as he seeks over and over to break down the human face into various representational systems, but also to the fact that even the brightest lights rarely work alone.