Close: The Destruction of the Individual


Scan of a Postcard. Linda by Chuck Close
Akron Art Museum
The social atomism which over the past three centuries has served as the historical axiom of social analysis posits an elementary unit – the individual – on the basis of which groups are supposed to be formed and to which they are supposed to be always reducible. This axiom… has been challenged by more than a century of sociological, economic, anthropological, and psychoanalytic research… Analysis shows that a relation (always social) determines [this axiomatic individual’s] terms, and not the reverse, and that each individual is a locus in which an incoherent (and often contradictory) plurality of such relational determinations interact. –– Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life

For Chuck Close the whole face really does not exist outside of circumstance; there is no singular identity to be found, only rather agglomerates of myriad individual and circumstantial factors, or, forces. The face is summoned out of nothing as a conceptual framework for the circumstantial coalescence of this indeterminate number of factors or forces. All of these individual atoms of the face, of identity, hang together and form some semblance of a shape, but never really merge together into one coherent, individual thing.The face does not exist, for it has no essence, only factors of the face exist, only forces at play exist. And, as such, one will notice that in any Chuck Close portrait the face is almost always blank or violent, because it has no one singular telos, no singular emotion to convey, but instead, millions, most of which probably clash quite violently.

The Akron Art Museum owns and proudly displays a Linda by Chuck Close, done with acrylic and graphite on gessoed linen. This immense piece (108 x 84 in.) hangs on the side of the room left of and facing the door, so one is immediately drawn to it upon entering the modern and contemporary gallery. Linda represents the same dissolving and decentralizing of the “individual”, the same shift of focus to the myriad circumstantial forces, as the majority of Close’s works, but does so in a very subtle and disconcerting way. Rather than literally fragmenting the portrait into multiple loci, with Linda Close has created a portrait do nuanced and detailed that upon approach the face itself dissolves into a teeming pool of super-fine details.

From afar, near the entrance to the gallery, Linda draws the eye and stares out at her beholder as an individual person or a single unit. Linda appears to be simply a bust of a middle-aged woman with frizzy, curly hair and a warmly colored blouse, but from first sight one is inevitably drawn towards her, a journey of about 30 feet. As one approaches the halfway point it becomes clear that this portrait is in likeness to a macro-focus photograph; all of the details of the neck and shoulders, the details at the fringe of the frizzy bush of hair on top of her head are blurred, leaving crisp focus only for the immediate facial features. At this point, instead of a bust portrait of a woman, the piece becomes a portrait of a face alone, which is the traditional locus of the individual, the house of whatever it is we are referring to with all of our pronouns. Traditionally, or mythically, the face is the seat of the mind or soul, the anima or psyche, and the rest of the body is solely an extension of the face. At this distance Linda is at the height of her individuality, a bona fide Homo sapien, a human, but, hauntingly, upon further approach one watches as this Linda that one came to know from just 15 feet away is destroyed, utterly, right before ones eyes, and there is no longer a person, only a bundle of infinite details. Close keeps in mind that the traditional gallery-hopper views a painting from approximately five feet, in order to achieve some sort of intimacy, and purposefully destroys Linda at exactly that distance. Most of the people that are drawn into this journey move as close (no pun intended) to the painting as possible, and, after being lured in to close proximity, they shift around a bit, unnerved, their individuality a bit defiled, and then move away quietly.

The destruction of Linda as individual at the range of five feet or less is absolute. Her face dissolves, as if it had been mere illusion, spun out of the stuff of dreams; it dissolves upon approach as if it had been forged by some sort of organic pointillism, and all one is left with is a plethora of super-fine details. Linda is not there, she is not the face from 15 feet away, because there is no face at all…there was no face to begin with. Face is only an abstract concept that we Homo sapiens grapple with, a dusty old metaphor that we now blindly cling to as truth, as absolute truth in and of itself, as intrinsic truth. Close forces us into grappling with the truthful knowledge that there is no such thing as face; there is only an aggregate of an indeterminate number of totally heterogeneous details, features, or forces.

Upon approach, one feels Close begging the question: What then is Linda? Is she the stained enamel and shadowed crevasses of her teeth? The dark lipstick over the wrinkles of her lips? The smudged bit of lipstick on her right corner of her bottom lip? Is she her smoking, or simply the yellow tint of her teeth? Is she the quiet, tentative speaker? or the femininely assertive speaker? as her face conveys both. Is Linda the woman that desperately wants to smile whole-heartedly, but can’t because she becomes shy? modest? or aware of the state of things in the world (no small, smiling matter)? Or is she simply the cocky, ironic half-smiler? She definitely holds a half-smile, but is it a half-smile because she is only half-happy, or because she has reservations about smiling any more than halfway? Or is it both? Is she her slightly raised left eyebrow? Is she the oily skin of her nose? The eyebrows that are just beginning to become overgrown, unkempt? Is she the frizzy curls of a permed woman? Or simply a Jewess? Is she that one single, tantalizing nose hair in her right nostril? Is she the crow’s feet on her weary face? Is she beautiful? Is she ugly? Is she in love? Does she hate? Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.

Linda is all of these things, and her name, or even the pronoun “her”, are simply abstract conceptual metaphors for an indeterminately large group of disparate forces. It is simply a shortcut that we have forgotten is not the way. It is just an idiom that we have forgotten has no meaning in and of itself. It is just a lie that we have forgotten is not the truth. And each of us is simply a metaphor, when considered as individuals, for a vast multitude of forces that happen to coincide in a general locus at a specific instant in time. Close performs the illustrious deconstruction of the individual beautifully and disconcertingly in Linda, and one can’t help but walk away remembering solely the detail, for there is nothing else.