Chuck Close is known for his photorealist portraits and for working in a variety of media. The six, giant, tapestries that feature in this exhibition are based on portraits Close took as daguerreotypes, these were subsequently scanned at high resolution and woven as tapestries on an electronic Jacquard loom, as the exhibition notes state: “the traditional genre of portraiture made using the ancient craft of weaving, transformed by innovative digital technology and the searing eye of a pioneering artist.” In a seeming effort to negate the mechanical nature of the process, the notes are also at pains to concentrate on the craft and artistry of the work, for example, this comment from Close: “as much thought and manipulation and altering of an image has taken place [as] you can see [in] a…painting [it’s] sometimes six or seven totally different tapestries before we get what we want.”
The exhibition is an attempt by Ushaw College to transition from Roman Catholic seminary, previously closed off from the public, to a cultural and heritage site. The tapestries hang in St. Cuthbert’s Chapel which boasts impressive gothic architecture and it is impossible for this not to affect the experience of viewing the work. The comparison of an art gallery to a church has been made often, but this is art literally displayed in a church. I couldn’t help but think of Benjamin’s aura and try to imagine how I would feel about the work if it was displayed in a traditional gallery setting. Ironically, there was probably more activity and discussion in this space than is the norm when art is displayed in a white cube – there was a combination of people enjoying the artwork, an organ player practicing, and, people enjoying the space accompanied by the welcome sound of chatter – in short, a more relaxed atmosphere than is typical of most galleries that are sometimes more like libraries. Five of the portraits are artists, (Close himself, Cindy Sherman, Kiki Smith, Ellen Gallagher and Lyle Ashton Harris) the sixth is of Barrack Obama and was commissioned as part of a fundraiser for his 2012 re-election campaign. The inclusion of Obama seems odd as the work is not only not part of the series concerning artists but was also made using a polaroid rather than the daguerreotype process that was the basis of the others. The artist pictures all display the shallow depth of field combined with high detail that is typical if the daguerreotype, have black backgrounds and a warm tone. The Obama portrait is predominately grey in hue, on a grey background and has a much larger depth of field. To me, this tapestry appears to be have included as a way to promote the exhibition with an image that is familiar for the viewer, its prominent use in the promotional material would appear to confirm this. For me, it is a misstep and detracts from the other images working together as a set, yet, I can also understand the marketing necessity to approach promotion in this way. I hope this exhibition is a success for the college and that the ambition to become a centre for arts and culture gains an audience – it is an interesting place and a welcome addition to the cultural landscape of my local area.