As an ex-printmaker I’m always drawn to experts in the field, impressed with the creativity and skill of artists as wide-ranging as Tracey Emin, Edward Hopper, Goya, Paula Rego and Chris Ofili (amongst many others). One of the most recent demonstrations of expertise which I was lucky enough to catch was Chuck Close Prints: Process and Collaboration at White Cube Bermondsey. Don’t feel bad if you missed it; this show occupied the main gallery for little over six weeks.
Most of you will be familiar with the hyper-real, photographic-quality portraits which Close prints and paints of himself, his friends and acquaintances. He’s certainly done the rounds over his long and acclaimed career. Many admirers of his work must recognise that there is something in Close’s perfection which they won’t find elsewhere, something so total and encapsulating. I remember visiting the Saatchi Gallery as a teenager, when it was still on the Southbank, and being utterly entranced and non-believing that the work in front of me could be anything other than a high-quality photograph. His skill is unquestionable and his works unique (though often imitated), qualities which are becoming increasingly hard to pinpoint within the contemporary art world.
The show at White Cube focused on the artist’s prints and the path he follows in obtaining the finished pieces. Anyone who has been involved in printmaking before will understand the methodical, process-led approach which is crucial to achieving successful results, and also the small degrees of experimentation in perfecting a plate or a block along the way, the small changes which make the difference between a good print and a great one. The display here showed prints at various degrees of completion, illustrating each stage of a woodcut, for example. These groupings of works were testament to the amount of time poured into the steps of the process. Close, of course, doesn’t work on his prints alone; he has a team of assistants and experts collaborating on each job, and this was explored throughout the exhibition.
More often than not I feel that painting and photography, the big, ATTENTION grabbing siblings of more modest methods of art production, get more than their fair share of coverage in exhibitions in the UK. When was the last time you recall being to a show purely based around printmaking or drawing? White Cube successfully opened up the secret world of design and error in creating Close’s prints and in doing so hopefully sparked a real curiosity in the minds of the visitors. Printmaking is an ancient art; it’s the medium of press, political process, critique and exploration, and one which such be given a proper showcasing by the galleries of London. If you ever get another chance to see Close’s engravings, woodcuts, linocuts, aquatints, etchings, tapestries or mezzotints up close, do take that opportunity.