Judge Mike Rubino prefers his Sesame Street contemporaries, Chuck Near and Chuck Far.
"You would think that a Close painting, by virtue of its frontality and its bigness would push people away. People go in close to those painting and they look at them inch by inch as if the were doctors in an office."—Robert Storr
It's doubtful that Chuck Close was destined to make any other kind of art. His very name comes with the instructions necessary for describing the sort of conceptual portraiture that's made him a staple in post-modern art history courses. His subjects are photographed with the camera unnaturally close to their faces. They fill the frame. And these paintings are large, inviting the viewer to approach them—to get close—in order to see that Close has painstakingly recreated his photographs by hand, one film grain at a time. It's his deconstruction of photographic printing methods that's important here; those giant faces are just a bonus.
And so goes Chuck Close, a naturalistic documentary about a fascinating modern artist. Filmmaker Marion Cajori follows the creation of one of Close's 2007 self portraits, and uses that process as the foundation for the film's narrative. The doc opens with Close photographing himself with a film camera the size of a gas grill. His meticulous nature is already starting to show: he produces countless prints, analyzing each one, adjusting his eyebrows and face just slightly each time, until everything is perfect. As the film progresses, Cajori follows Close's method of turning that photograph into a massive painting comprised of a tight, colorful, hand-painted grid. As the painting progresses, Close expounds on his background, his creative development, and his personal life, including the spinal artery collapse in 1988 that left him in a wheelchair.
Chuck Close isn't an autobiography, even though the artist does plenty of interviews for the camera; his friends and colleagues are more than happy to do the talking. Interviews with post-modern artists like Robert Rauschenberg, Alex Katz, and Janet Fish flesh out Close's character and style. Close began his artistic evolution as an Abstract Expressionist, aping Willem de Kooning and splattering paint on his compositions like Jackson Pollack. Eventually, he moved into conceptual art, and developed his own style. Cajori shows how artists are influenced by various schools and movements, either reacting to or building off of them. While occasionally the interviews get a little too gushy, there wasn't a single person who didn't fit in the film. It was also a treat to hear from folks like Philip Glass, Kiki Smith, and other portrait subjects. Close paints a lot of his friends and contemporaries, and so Cajori takes time to learn about their art forms as well.
If the film has any misstep, it's perhaps with the creation of Close's "Self-Portrait." Scenes of Chuck Close painting small squares is interesting in brief clips, but the extended sequences slow the film down to a crawl. Later in the doc, the filmmakers strap a camera to his brush, which added a new perspective to the setup, but even that could have used some trimming. Similarly, little is said of his early process—when he was just painting large black and white images. There are a few photos of him using his air brush, but I felt like his pioneering days could have been explored more thoroughly.
For artists and students, Chuck Close is an engaging look at a living legend in the post-modern art world. It's a great looking film as well, with a solid digital transfer and naturalistic stereo sound. Unfortunately, it's a bare bones release (not counting the trailer). There's no artist gallery or deleted footage in sight.
Chuck Close is a film patterned after the artist's own style, focusing on the small aspects of Close's life, routines, friends, and family. In the end, the disparate interviews, photos, and footage add up to a satisfying documentary.
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