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Up Close

October 27, 2017

An old adage tells us that seeing is believing, and the next best thing to seeing with your own eyes was a photograph. Cameras came to define an ultimate realism. Of course this was before computers could digitally alter photographs. When I was an art instructor, students would ask me how to paint realistically. I’d ask them to explain what they meant by “realistically.” They’d say, “You know, like a photograph.”


This bothered me enough to reply, “Why would you take days to paint something that looked like it could have been captured in a nanosecond with the click of a camera? If the final result of your effort looks like a photograph, then you’ve failed.”


Having said this, a post about American artist Chuck Close might seem like a contradiction. Chuck Close is a contemporary American artist whose early work falls under the category of “photorealism.” This art developed out of POP Art from the late 50s and 60s when artists like Andy Warhol began making images of popular items in our culture, like Campbell Soup cans and Brillo pads.


This statement might shock you: The following painting presents us with an image of the artist, what most people would think of as a self-portrait, but it is not even a portrait of a human being. You might be tempted to ask, “how can this be? It looks so realistic!”



All pictures by Chuck Close


Any photographer will tell you that the camera, designed to mimic the human eye, creates a reality of its own. We’re conditioned to accept a picture is the truth, a mirror of reality, but like any carnival mirror the subject is usually distorted in a variety of ways. As an example, if you look beyond the amazing details of an early Chuck Close painting, you’ll see that every detail is given equal attention, the same level of focus. The result looks like a forensic image, perhaps that of a mugshot or corpse in a police photograph. Human eyes don’t receive information this way. We only see clearly what we’re focusing on and everything else is out of focus.


Chuck Close has produced gigantic airbrushed black and white images of people, and they ARE portraits: they’re portraits of photographs of people, not portraits of the people themselves. It’s often said of POP art that the idea is more interesting than the actual art, but in this instance I believe the artist is making a bold statement about the mechanization of contemporary life. Few people sit for conventional portraits anymore and most images we see of people are snapshots. POP art and its offspring—Photorealism— strove to make us think about the objects in our everyday lives, like the snapshots in photo albums collecting dust on our bookshelves.














Many people were unhappy with this art, which made little effort to please, as did the Impressionists with their sugary hues and textures, but it’s nevertheless a powerful cultural statement to think that artists would take extreme effort to think and produce images that mimicked a machine, in this case the camera. Close would later add color to his paintings and illness would force a change in technique, but these strong early images made a lasting impact on modern art.


Since much art is now being created electronically on computers, I can’t help but wonder if machines will eventually replace artists altogether. Scientists talk about advancements in the creation of artificial life, and I think they will have succeeded with robotic self-awareness when machines begin creating their own art, an ability currently attributed only to humans.


Then once again, our definition of “realism” will undoubtedly change.




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Aren't there some gorillas and such that paint? I definitely wouldn't want to hang those in my living room.
By: PT Dilloway on October 27, 2017
The job of an artist in my humble opinion is not to please viewers but make them think and feel.
By: Rick Watson on October 27, 2017
These are good, just not my taste. A lot of work goes into any artists works and none of the works can please everyone.
By: Jimmy on October 27, 2017
Impressive yet a good photo would make me feel equally as impressed and it would only take a second to produce.
By: Arkansas Patti on October 27, 2017
what I find absolutely fascinating is that he uses his finger prints to create these gigantic portraits!
By: Kathe W. on October 27, 2017
I agree--art should not look like a photograph!!
By: fishducky on October 27, 2017
What a sad world it would be if robots and technology replaced artists!
By: Marcia @ Menopausal Mom on October 27, 2017
A talented man that I wasn't aware of until I read your blog, Stephen. Thanks once again for making more cultured. Take care.
By: Mr. Shife on October 27, 2017
Even if it's not my cup of tea, i can see that he is extremely talented.
By: messymimi on October 27, 2017
I like it. But I don't know anything about art. Maybe that's why.
By: Val on October 27, 2017
I think those are cool. Love, Janie
By: Janie Junebug on October 27, 2017
An excellent post and departure point for discussion and pondering. I hope we do not become so mechanistic that our art begins to ape technology as opposed to being the rendering of skill driven by passion, soul, intellect and emotion. Having said that I admire the artist who can paint so well it leaves me wondering if it is a photograph. There is a photo realist practitioner in the artists colony here in Cambria and his work, land and sea scapes are marvelous and the product of a meticulous and arduous effort. I favor art that evokes or contains interpretation and personality.
By: Tom Cochrun on October 27, 2017
I'm a little confused.
By: cranky on October 27, 2017
I do love much of Close's work.
By: Mitchell is Moving on October 28, 2017
I am in utter awe of the technical prowess shown here. In terms of "meaning" and "what is art" I'm really not qualified to comment, but I don't get the point of reproducing something a camera could capture other than to show how clever the artist is. To me there would be more value in bringing something to photorealistic life that came from the imagination - something that no camera could ever capture.
By: Botanist on October 28, 2017
I'm not sure that there is much artistic merit in paintings which seek to replicate photos. The time for such stuff has gone. So that's why I don't think computers will do art. For my money the future of art is Grayson Perry and Jeremy Deller, people with technical skill who take what real people are thinking and transform it into art.
By: Jenny Woolf on October 28, 2017
This is interesting..."every detail is given equal attention." I'd never thought of this, that our eyes don't see like that. Now I have to think about this and try to figure out if that's true. Hm.
By: Pixel Peeper on October 28, 2017
Very impressive! But, can he do a shot of dogs playing poker?
By: Al Penwasser on October 29, 2017
Art... reveals humanities interpretation using imagination, creativity as an emotional response to our senses. Art isn't always beautiful or pretty.
By: Daniel LaFrance on October 29, 2017
I've always been drawn more to realistic paintings or drawings, the more realistic they are the better I like them. So these are very appealing to me. I don't care if you can produce something similar with a camera; it takes talent to do it without one!
By: jenny_o on October 30, 2017

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