Arts: Too close for comfort

The nearer we get to Chuck Close's giant portraits the more remote they become.
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The Independent Culture
Degas was once in the Louvre with the poet Paul Valery. They were looking at a painting of some trees. Valery said how superb it was, "but what a bore to make all those leaves, it must have been fearfully tedious". "Rubbish," said Degas, "if there were no tedium, there'd be no enjoyment in it." In those terms, the work of Chuck Close is very enjoyable.

If you think about it, Degas' words might work for many modern artists. Modern art has lots of enjoyable tediousness; it's full of measured and methodical filling in. But the remark applies particularly to Chuck Close, just because he doesn't paint leaves or geometrical abstractions or anything that might ask for a mechanical hand. He paints faces.

The pictures that fill the downstairs rooms at the Hayward Gallery are over 30 years' work. The earliest ones date back to a time when painting anything recognisable was thought pretty iffy. And whether any of the New York artist's face painting qualifies as portraiture remains a moot point.

His subjects include various contemporary arts luminaries - Philip Glass, Roy Lichtenstein, Cindy Sherman - though the titles only ever use first names. Altogether, the faces constitute a cast of John Updikey characters. Still, you're never quite sure if the pictures, so laboriously and minutely executed and so vast in scale, have an interest that's exactly human or personal. That doubt is one of Close's resources. His subject is really the mechanics of portraiture.

One of the normal uses of portraits is to offer a more steadily intimate view of the face than is usually possible in life. But Close goes in closer. His work itself operates a multiple pun on closeness, on physical and psychological closeness, on close observation and close workmanship. And it mixes closeness and distance up in inextricable paradoxes.

These images are too close for contact. Or rather, they're too big, too monumental, giant's heads. It's the artist and us who are too close. In the act of painting, the artist could not have held the whole face in view. Up at picture surface, he could only have seen a nostril, an eyeball, not an individual. We viewers go close, too. We're lured by a promise of vivid detail and seamless realism. We have to see the nitty gritty. But the nearer we get, the more remote these subjects become as people - and the more revealed as bodies.

Close offers the intimacy that Cary Grant experienced on Mount Rushmore in North by Northwest, or that the Lilliputian experienced on Gulliver: "He said, he could discover great holes in my skin, that the stumps of my beard were ten times stronger than the bristles of a boar, and my complexion made up of several colours altogether disagreeable." There is no human viewing distance. Far off, they're colossi; near on, they're specimens.

Actually I exaggerate. That's what you think it will be like. But go right up to one of these big faces, and you never quite get that Swiftian, bug's-eye view of gross minutiae. You find , rather, that while the finish can be seamless, the level of detail doesn't keep pace with the degree of magnification. Close is not painting microscopically. He's painting from normal-sized photos. He's enlarging the image hugely in the process, but staying faithful to the restricted level of detail contained in the original photo. One of the results of enlargement is to make you see this - see that these portraits are not from life, but at one remove, second- hand. Just at the point where you think that intimacy is going to turn icky, it turns blank.

Or the image dematerialises. Close began working smoothly photo-realistically, but increasingly used various sorts of "pixilation". With these giant faces, one moment you're looking at a forest of moustache - the next, it separates out into a speckled chequer-board of graded shades of grey.

It's an old Impressionist trick, really, the image that disintegrates into a field of brush strokes. And like Impressionism, or digital pixilation, Close's work depends on a faultless registration of tone: get the tones just right and - at a certain distance - the viewer's eye will presume much more detail than there is.

In very small images (his other forte), Close reverses the distance games. Far off, you get a clear offer of the face, then, just when you think you're going to see what it really looks like, it dissolves.

Close's pixils lie somewhere between Impressionist brushmarks and a computer's flat squares - mechanical but never quite uniform. Early on, he fills a graph-paper grid with soft dots or fat dabs. Later, he loosens up the grids, or loses them altogether. He makes collages with chunky pieces of rough pulp paper, creating thickly piled relief effects - whose thicknesses are, however, slightly out of synch with the volumes of the face, so that again the image doesn't quite coalesce with its making.

His cleverest and sweetest stroke are the small-scale pictures of the early 1980s, built up from his finger-prints of varying pressure and inkiness. On one level they're just very witty. They're a literal sort of "print" - unique, hand-made prints, and signed all over, so to speak, for super- authenticity. Or again, they're made from touches, without not having at all what you'd call "touch" in the artistic sense. But in addition as these neat jokes about personality and impersonality, there's a tender to-and-fro between self-assertion and -restraint. These faces are brought into being by being touched, and depend on the most careful handling if they're not to be obliterated in a mess of dirty paw-marks.

The later, large-scale painting, pixilated in dolly-mixture tesserae, I don't like, but they give another twist. The faces are massive, but the bits are very big, too. You can hardly see the wood for the trees. You have to stand right back and blur your vision to make the image resolve. And you feel that - however sure Close's eye is - these pictures involve an enormous discrepancy between where he must be to apply the paint and where he must be to check if the mark is right (especially since he's been in a wheelchair for the last decade). But I feel that finally a bad sort of tedium has set in.

Chuck Close at the Hayward Gallery, South Bank, London SE1 (0171-960 4242) to 19 Sept