White Cube Bermondsey

Charles Darwent on art: Chuck Close Prints - Process and Collaboration

5.00

Hundreds of tiny etchings create his vast portraits, but does knowing the process help us know Chuck Close? This fine show may fill in the gaps

Notice the way the eyes follow you around the room. Well, the glasses at any rate, this being a portrait of Chuck Close. Bespectacled, bearded and rising 73, Close is no Mona Lisa. He may be like the man who painted her, though, unexpected as that may seem.

Close is known for great, big paintings of himself, made up of gridded diamond shapes framing bright, amoebae-like squiggles. Any individual diamond, isolated and blown up, could be an abstract work in its own right. Stand at the wrong distance, either too far or too near, and that is how they look. Hit the right optical biting point, and the squiggles coalesce into portraits, like the one on this wall at White Cube Bermondsey.

True, Self-Portrait (1977) is made up of squares rather than diamonds, and is a print rather than a painting. Still, Close's fascination remains the same. Each of the hundreds – thousands? – of the image's graph-paper squares has been gouged with an etching needle on a copper plate by the artist's own hand. For a print, Self-Portrait (1977) is vast, and so, commensurately, is the plate from which it came, hung on the wall alongside – 36 inches wide, the biggest single copper sheet commercially available at the time. That's an awful lot of gouging.

Close has picked out his own face by hatching every square more or less densely, so that the shading of each piece of the resultant mosaic is minutely different from the other. The process is hand-cramping, blinding and, I would think, unimaginably tedious. It is also fraught with risk. Once etched, a copper plate cannot be unetched. To know where the image was going to end up, Close would have had to know exactly how each square fitted into it. There are no second chances in copper, as he had found with the first of the so-called gargantuan prints, a 1972 mezzotint called Keith. Keith was test-proofed so thoroughly that its plate had worn smooth. There could be no dry runs for Self-Portrait (1977).

So why did Close choose to portray himself in this self-punishing way? There are several conventional answers to this question, all rather dry.

The first is that he was fascinated by something called "process", which means roughly that his prints set out to tell the story of their own making. Process art is not about the end result, but about the steps leading up to it: Self-Portrait (1977) is not the depiction of Chuck Close's beard and glasses, but of the way he etched them. It is, if you like, the opposite of a Jeff Koons balloon puppy, whose Valley-girl subject matter and shiny surface deny the huge complexity of its making.

Process art was certainly a big deal in the 1970s, being loosely allied to left-wing politics and an itch for visual honesty. Then again, the graph-paper substructure of Self-Portrait (1977) is that exotic creature, a Modernist grid. The critic Rosalind Krauss might sniff that no art had ever sprung from less fertile a ground than the grid, but, like contemporaries such as Sol LeWitt and Agnes Martin, Close remained wedded to it.

These desiccated answers are not what you feel as you wander around this museum-quality show, though. Yes, the Close who emerges from four decades of print-making, the lesser known part of his oeuvre, is more intellectual than you might have guessed from his paintings. But he is also more passionate. Hung on the gallery's walls are mezzotints, aquatints, seven-step linocuts, Jacquard tapestries, woodcuts, relief prints, an anamorphic self-portrait and another silk-screened in 111 – 111! – colours. You don't make art this obsessive just to prove a point.

No, to get close to Close, you need to step away from him, around the corner to a series of works called Roy. These, in an array of sizes and media, are portraits of his friend, Roy Lichtenstein. I wrote a couple of weeks ago about the moral anxiety of Lichtenstein's Ben-Day dots, and Close's travels through the history of print-making set off from a similar place.

From Leonardo on, art had been about revelation, portraiture allowing us to look into people's souls. In this fine exhibition's three big rooms, we see Close using every strategy of representation known to man only to end up by representing nothing, least of all himself. This isn't the glib nihilism of a Postmodern artist, but the horror of an instinctive traditionalist who has looked and looked and, at last, seen nothing but the reflection of his own glasses. Come to think of it, Self-Portrait (1977) may be like Mona Lisa after all, in that it gives nothing away about its subject. But then, neither image was meant to.

To 21 April (020-7930 5373)

Critic's Choice

Pop goes the Tate: a major Roy Lichtenstein exhibition is a crowd-pleaser, so book in advance to enjoy the pop-artist's iconic works, from familiar comic-strip style pieces to lesser-known gems, at the Tate Modern (until 27 May). Another popular-but-worth-the-queue exhibition is the Hayward Gallery's Light Show, featuring works by 22 artists, including a stand-out installation by James Turrell. Everything is illuminated until 28 Apr.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Rupert Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks in 2011

Review: A panoramic account of the hacking scandal

books
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian Jack Dee has allegedly threatened to quit as chairman of long-running Radio 4 panel show 'I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue'

Edinburgh Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux play teeneage lovers in the French erotic drama 'Blue Is The Warmest Colour' - The survey found four times as many women admitting to same-sex experiences than 20 years ago

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Director Paul Thomas Anderson (right) and his movie The Master featuring Joaquin Phoenix

film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>Laura
Carmichael- Lady Edith Crawley</strong></p>
<p>Carmichael currently stars as Sonya in the West End production of
Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya at the Vaudeville Theatre. She made headlines this autumn
when Royal Shakespeare Company founder Sir Peter Hall shouted at her in a
half-sleepy state during her performance. </p>
<p>Carmichael made another appearance on the stage in 2011, playing
two characters in David Hare’s <em>Plent</em>y
at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield. </p>
<p>Away from the stage she starred as receptionist Sal in the 2011
film <em>Tinker Tailor Solider Spy</em>. </p>

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Zoe Saldana admits she's

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Old Fashioned' will be a different kind of love story to '50 Shades'
film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off contestants line-up behind Sue and Mel in the Bake Off tent

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Mitch Winehouse is releasing a new album

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him

music
Arts and Entertainment
On set of the Secret Cinema's Back to the Future event

film
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
    Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

    Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

    Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
    Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

    Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

    Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
    Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

    Spanx launches range of jeans

    The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
    10 best over-ear headphones

    Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

    Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
    Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

    Commonwealth Games

    David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

    Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star