Close up, the artwork on the walls of the Westport Arts Center gallery looks like a series of squiggles and geometric shapes. Step back and those blobs of color and brush strokes take the form of a face.
At the opening reception Friday for WAC's latest exhibit, "Chuck Close: About Face," more than 300 faces in the crowd examined the intricate work of the artist in his photographic studies, prints, drawings and paintings. They marveled at the inventive techniques he used to create his large-scale, photo-based portraits, bringing subjects' faces into focus.
"It's extraordinary work," said Jonathan Weinberg, of New Haven, a Yale University art historian and author of "Chuck Close Photo Maquettes." Weinberg said Close's work is a study in how to look at people's faces; "how to see."
"I like his work. I like the color, I like the composition," said Steffi Friedman of Westport.
Artist Denise Susalka of Redding said she is influenced by Close, not in his painting techniques but in his philosophy. "He said `Inspiration is for amateurs.' You don't wait for inspiration. You just show up," said Susalka, who called Close's work "a map of your face as a terrain."
The work is all the more amazing when viewers learn that Close was paralyzed in 1988 after suffering a rare spinal arterial collapse. He continues to paint using a special brush-holding device strapped to his wrist and forearm.
Among the faces on the wall and in the crowd was that of Bob Elson of Westport, a long-time friend of Close, who lent to the WAC exhibit three pieces. "More people are seeing this charcoal tonight than have ever seen it. It's in the living room, generally," Elson said.
Helen Klisser During, curator and director of visual arts for WAC, said the 38 works in the exhibit reveal the way Close builds his images. "He begins with a photograph of a face, grids it out, and then methodically translates what he sees between the spaces into a similarly gridded painting or plate for printing," During said.
At the reception, During talked about Close's difficult life, including his paralysis and his father's death when he was only 11. In an episode of CBS's "Note to Self," an Emmy Award-nominated series by Westporter and CBS News producer Paige Kendig, Close used his art techniques to underscore his approach to life and its challenges. "If you are overwhelmed by the size of a problem, break it down into many bite-sized pieces," he said.
Kendig will be at the Westport Arts Center, 51 Riverside Ave., at 6 p.m. Dec. 10 for a screening of "Chuck Close: Note to Self" and a discussion of the film.
Other events planned in connection with the Close exhibit, which runs through Jan. 12, include Drink and Draw at 7 p.m. Dec. 5, where WAC will provide materials and "you supply the creativity;" and Robert Storr, a professor of painting and dean of the Yale School of Art, will give insight into the work and life of Close in "In Conversation with Robert Storr" at 3 p.m. Jan. 12.
For more information, call 203-222-7070 or visit www.westportartscenter.org