Artists Siena and Close Discuss the Craft of Image-Building

December 14, 2012

"Nothing brings me more pleasure than looking at your work," Chuck Close said to James Siena (B.F.A. '79) during the Eli Broad Lecture, held Dec. 5 at the Morgan Library in Manhattan. The remark came nearly an hour into the conversation between the two painters, who are longtime friends.

The evening's conceit was unique: Each master artist selected works by the other, projected them on a screen, and offered a critique of the paintings. The conversation was hosted by Kent Kleinman, dean of the College of Architecture, Art and Planning, and attended by a capacity crowd of 250 alumni and friends and seen by dozens more on the Web.

Kleinman said that structuring the event as a critique and exploration of image-making highlights the pedagogical approach central to arts education and practice.

"I like to think that by foregrounding the arts at Cornell, we are not just 'updating' our institutional profile, but tapping into a profound philosophy that understands the search for knowledge can be embodied equally in formulating an equation, designing a plan or building an image," he said.

Siena began by presenting three dozen Close paintings, etchings and prints. The subject of each work was a human face executed in grid patterns of layers of ink or paint. For decades, Close has painted portraits and self-portraits in an era when contemporary art often dismisses the subject matter completely.

"This resolute devotion to process, to hand, mind, body machine ... is mapped onto portraiture, which is not the coolest thing in the art world," Siena said, "... and somehow Chuck has made it his own and quite remarkable."

The idea of process and craft, often shunned in modern art culture, was on full display by both artists throughout the evening. They revealed and discussed how a piece was made, with little concern that their openness reduced the power of the work.

"[Art] is not demystified by showing how it's done," Close said. "Even the most abstract of art had a human being behind it." By talking about how it's made, he said, "it shows how human art making is."

Close presented a selection of about a dozen of Siena's abstract paintings, all of which used color combinations and a systematic logic to generate them. The system in place wasn't always apparent.

"You know there's a system, but it's hard to find," Close said. "It's organic but there are surprises."

While on the surface their work appears dramatically different, the artists avowed their beliefs in self-imposed constraints — a grid, a limited palette, a rigorous process. They said working within such limitations generates an expressive visual language while leaving behind the traces of how the work is made, providing access points for viewers.

"We want to pull the viewer in to an image, then we want to overwhelm them, then we want them to go away and come back in a sequence of reactions, not just a single, unitary reaction to it," Siena said.

Echoing the sentiment, Close said, "Artists are orchestrators of experiences."

One of the attendees, Shirley Sung-Suazo (B.F.A. '79), a classmate of Siena's, said the artists "were very in the moment and free. I loved hearing the background of the pieces — that there are humans behind it. Process is unpredictable and it's all about the possibilities. It inspired everyone in the room."

By Aaron Goldweber

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