Henry Art Gallery’s “Chuck Close Photographs” serves as both a showcase for Close’s photos and a tutorial on how his other artworks — paintings, prints, tapestries — use photography as their starting point.
Step into the Henry Art Gallery’s “Chuck Close Photographs” and you may feel you’ve entered a Giant-Color-Polaroids Temple.
In the museum’s central gallery, two enormous nudes — one male, one female, each 8½ feet high and 17 feet wide — face each other. The models for “Bertrand II” and “Laura I” gaze serenely at you, propped on their elbows in an odalisque pose.
At first they appear to make ordinary visual sense. Look more closely, though, and you’ll see that the five huge Polaroid panels that make them up create subtle distortions.
‘Chuck Close Photographs’
11 a.m.-4 p.m. Wednesdays-Sundays, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Thursdays, through April 2, 2017. Henry Art Gallery, University of Washington, Seattle; $6-$10 (206-543-2280 or henryart.org).
In the case of “Laura I,” the disjunction between the panel on the far left and the next one in makes the model’s right hand look too large for her forearm. In “Bertrand II,” there’s something askew with his lower limbs, as if he has two knees in his right leg and two ankles in his left. Soon you realize these epic works are less about the bodies they portray than the way the eye sees.
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“Chuck Close Photographs,” curated by Terrie Sultan, is an indispensable companion exhibit to “Chuck Close Prints,” which visited Everett’s Schack Arts Center this summer. Spanning more than 50 years (1964-2016), it serves as both a showcase for Close’s photographs and a tutorial on how his other artworks — paintings, prints, tapestries — use photography as their starting point.
To make the tutorial complete, the Henry has borrowed non-photographic Close works from local collectors to let you see how a recurring image moves from one medium to another. Several paintings and Jacquard tapestries (an early 19th-century punch-card weaving method that anticipated the development of the computer) are as impressive as the best photos in the exhibit.
One local loan, “Lucas II,” is an oil-on-canvas portraying artist Lucas Samaras, his face half-atomized in a mandalalike grid. Next to it, two Polaroids of Samaras catch his intense features at slightly different angles, hinting at Close’s search for the exact burning-eyes-and-wild-hair effect he was after.
A number of the Polaroids are small-scale studies for much larger paintings. Some are “cropped” with masking tape and have rectangular or diagonal grids drawn over them that served as Close’s guidelines in bumping up the scale of the image.
Close’s small “Lisa/maquette,” next to his huge oil-on-canvas “Lisa,” illuminates his working method while highlighting how mysterious his final painted results can be. Stand close to the painting and it dissolves into minimalist abstraction. Step back from it, and you’re looking at an image of artist Lisa Yuskavage. (“I still can’t tell you how our eyes are willing to turn that into a portrait,” Sultan confessed at a media preview earlier this month.)
Elsewhere, the photographs are the star attractions. Flanking “Bertrand II” and “Laura I” are two towering Polaroid assemblages: “Anthurium” (a diptych) and “Chrysanthemum” (a triptych), both of them floral studies far more flamboyant than the nudes are. Close is also fascinated with outmoded photographic processes, especially daguerreotypes, and has fun catching friends and colleagues — Cindy Sherman, Kiki Smith and other luminaries — on camera.
A good helping of his self-portraits completes the show, including gelatin silver prints, sizable Polaroids, a daguerreotype and a photogravure.
The most monumental images of Close are on tapestry. The brand-new “Self Portrait (Jade Glasses)” greets you at the exhibit entrance. The Cinemascope-wide “Self Portrait/Five Part” (2009), in the rear of the museum, aligns five images of him to almost holographic effect.
This show, in all its permutations, is about far more than photography.