What can be seen as a beautiful work of art by one person may not appear that way to someone else. So much in the art world is subjective, yet when artists are able to come up with something revolutionary while showing technical prowess it tends to garner attention. Nancy by Chuck Close is one of those paintings that forces people to take notice. Creating portraits at a time when they were considered dead by many; Close was able to achieve success while overcoming adversity with his larger than life portraits.
Painted in 1968, Nancy was Chuck Close’s second portrait belonging to his “heads” series. Measuring in at 108 3/8 x 82 1/4 in, Nancy is a black and white portrait painted using acrylic on canvas (Milwaukee Art Museum). It shows a woman from the neck up looking at the viewer with an empty almost emotionless stare. It is rather bland in the fact that there is no real focal point that stands out in the portrait. Instead, he centers Nancy on the canvas with no background behind her. Close portrays Nancy with a lot of details. When first looking at it she seems unwelcoming. She has straw-like hair, which is shown unkempt; she has a bit of a cross to her eyes, and a slight snaggletooth. Close shows all of her wrinkles and age lines along with all of her freckles. Nancy does not appear to have any hidden symbols seeing as how it follows the photorealism style.
Nancy is a portrait that does not hold anything back. Everything about her face is there for everyone to see. It is incredibly detailed having even the hair follicles on her face being visible. When you look closely it looks like a whole different picture than when you view it from afar. Up close one can become confused as to what they are looking at because of its enormous size. Since all the physical features of the face are so grossly enlarged it is difficult to determine exactly what everything is.
Nancy belongs in his early portraits from photographs in that it is in black and white and still uses the grid system of representing each grid square as an individual portrait that comes together as a whole creating a very real almost photo-like quality. He later took this method and expanded upon it to include the use of colors, as well as taking the grid system and making each square their own abstract in which they blend together to create a general portrait, almost having a mosaic quality.
Another interesting aspect of Nancy and all of his “heads” portraits is the timing of their painting and release to the public. At the time Close, along with many others, thought portraiture was “viewed as a bankrupt form, dead in the water” (O’Hagan). Close called them “heads” for this reason so as not to attach a negative stigma to them.
The reason I picked this particular work to write this paper on was because it had a shock value on me when I first saw it. It was interesting how such an unattractive portrait could capture my interest and force me to do a double take. At first glance, I thought it was quite grotesque and did not recognize that it was actually a portrait of a real person; I thought it was some distorted idea of an ugly person. In fact, as I was standing there more than a couple of people came along and commented on how hideous it seemed, further adding to the mystique.
It also got my attention because the incredible detail levels make it seem as if it actually is a photograph instead of just a portrait. As I looked at it more it seemed to emit a sort of aura or presence due to its enormous size. I thought it was one of those painting that you can look at for a long time and still find small little nuances you did not notice before. It also has the ability to play tricks with one’s eyes depending on how far away one views it. .
The feeling it gives me is almost unsettling in some regard. It is in such large scale that it almost takes a life of its own. Nancy also amazes me because it makes me think how confident Nancy Graves must have been to have her portrayed in such an unsightly manner with every flaw on showcase for people to see. It is almost as if she is making a statement with Close of that even though the human body is not perfect and can be ugly at times, that it still can be used as an art form. This seems to add an almost mystical quality that is hard to describe.
It makes me think when one takes anything and zooms in enough to expose all the little flaws and it becomes grotesque just as Nancy looks, how even grotesque things can still be subjects of great works of art. The fact that Close works with faces even though he cannot recognize them because of his condition also interests me. Coupling this with his paralysis suffered from “the Event”, along with him being wheelchair bound makes him a remarkable topic of study.
Chuck Close accomplished setting himself apart while painting his “heads” series, including Nancy. By painting Nancy, he created an awe striking portrait that captures the viewer’s attention. Nancy showcases Close’s technical proficiency with all of its details, yet also manages to congeal all the details into one smooth image. Close not only started to set himself apart but also helped bring photorealism into the mainstream in America with his larger than life portraits. These portraits exude a sort of mystique that is not easily ignored and it is one of the many reasons Close remains one of the most influential painters in the history of American art.