Close encounters

Faces: Chuck Close & Contemporary Portraiture

Up Close and personal: Chuck Close’s 2006 “Self portrait,” a tapestry currently on display at the NMA.

Up Close and personal: Chuck Close’s 2006 “Self portrait,” a tapestry currently on display at the NMA.

Nevada Museum of Art

160 W. Liberty St.
Reno, NV 89501

(775) 329-3333

Five giant images of human faces hang along the east wall of the Nevada Museum of Art. They appear to be black and white photographs; each face is in sharp focus and seems to lock eyes with the viewer. Music lovers may recognize one face as the composer Philip Glass, and just about everyone will recognize the supermodel Kate Moss. And some viewers might recognize the center face as a self portrait of the artist, Chuck Close.

Close was at one time closely associated with photorealism—a style of painting meant to convey the realism of photography—so viewers will be forgiven for initially thinking the portraits are photographs. And, even more surprisingly, viewers will also be forgiven for assuming the portraits are paintings.

They are, in fact, intricately woven tapestries.

The tapestries are plotted using meticulous digital imaging and then woven with a unique custom loom. And though the portraits appear, from across the room, to be black and white, a closer inspection reveals hidden strands of color.

Faces: Chuck Close & Contemporary Portraiture is the feature exhibition at the NMA. The focus of the show, according to David Walker, the museum’s executive director, is “to take the idea of portraiture into the future.”

There are some big names in the show, like Gerhard Richter and Andy Warhol, and plenty of big ideas that challenge the usual assumptions of what constitutes a portrait. The works of Cindy Sherman, for example, are self portraits, though Sherman assumes the guise of a historic figure or cinematic character type. There’s also a variety of non-traditional media represented—Close appears in hologram form, for example.

Close, perhaps the biggest name closely associated with contemporary portraiture, is the anchor of the show. “We like Chuck Close,” says Walker, “Because he’s rigorous and consistent in this exploration”—the exploration of the human portrait.

Close came to prominence as a photorealist in the 1970s. His dedication to the art of portraiture continued after a 1988 spinal artery collapse left him almost entirely paralyzed. His style changed by necessity, but his art remained just as vital. His later portraits, like the 2002 “James,” employ a carefully plotted grid. Every individual square is loose and colorful, but the grid coalesces into a portrait that manages to convey an incredible likeness.

All of the pieces in the exhibit are on loan from Doris and Donald Fisher, owners and founders of the Gap clothing stores. Walker emphasizes what a privilege it was for the NMA to explore—and curate an exclusive show from—one of the best private collections of contemporary art in the world.

Jim Dine’s piece “The Yellow Painting” is perhaps the work of art in the exhibit with the most tenuous—and perhaps most interesting—connection to the theme of portraiture. It’s a painting, but very sculptural. Some of Dine’s actual craftsman’s tools—pliers, a hammer—are incorporated into the piece. The idea is that person’s portrait can be their tools rather than their face.

“It’s an autobiographical piece,” says Walker. “The portrait today—unlike a couple hundred years ago—is not necessarily about depicting likeness.”