An artist who can’t recognize faces paints portraits. To most, this would seem ridiculous, perhaps impossible. To Chuck Close, the artist, it is natural.
“I don’t care about landscapes or apples. I care about people. I have no memory of faces in three dimensions,” said Close, who has prosopagnosia, or “face blindness.” At times, Close couldn’t recognize the woman he had lived with for years. But once he paints someone, he can remember their face well enough to identify them in real life. And that is why he does it.
Close spoke at a Society for Neuroscience lecture titled “My Life as a Rolling Neurological Clinic.” Close, 73, had learning, visual, and muscular disabilities as a child. A collapsed spinal artery as an adult left him paralyzed from the shoulders down in 1988. He later regained some movement but now relies on a wheelchair. He was supposed to travel to New Orleans for his SfN talk, but a medical setback prevented him from travelling. It’s hard to imagine his lecture, delivered via live video feed, was any less engaging than it would have been in person.
Close spoke about his life while showing slides of his portraits—from him first taking the brush to the canvas to the finished product, which is often hard to distinguish from an oversized headshot. (Serious enthusiasts of art may cringe at that assessment, but it is meant as a compliment to Close’s attention to detail.)
Twenty-four hours after Close’s lecture, there was a press conference in the same building about facial communication. “The face reveals information about age, health, mood, and perhaps what someone is thinking,” said Martha Farah, the press conference’s moderator. “We do ‘mind reading’ all the time, we don’t need fMRI for that.”
Close misses out on all of this. That he can paint faces with such detail given his condition seems incredible, but maybe it shouldn’t. Asked if face blindness pushed him towards portraits, Close said, “I wanted to put people I loved in my memory bank,” and drawing allowed him to do that. “I use it as a social and learning device.”
Eric Kandel, a DABI member and panelist at Close’s talk, told Close that “It is remarkable how your brain compensates for disabilities.” Close is dyslexic, but he found other ways to impress his teachers as a young student. “You solve problems like a scientist,” Kandel told him.
“Far more important than problem solving is problem creation,” Close responded. “Think of a good question and you will seek an original answer as opposed to focusing on others’ solutions. You need to back yourself into a corner to come up with a personal, idiosyncratic solution. And the best way to do that is through severe limitations…Everything about my work is driven by my disabilities.”
Later, when asked about neuroaesthetics, the scientific approach to the understanding of art perception, Close said, “I think we are all using portions of our brain that we don’t think of as art portions of the brain. I’m fully right-brained. The two hemispheres of my brain do not speak very well to each other…Dyslexia is virtually unknown in China because it’s a pictographic language. Had I grown up there I might have used my brain in a very different way.”
And yet, so much wonderful art came from the way Close does use his brain. “It’s hard for me to think of anybody who has used their brain more effectively than you,” Kandel told Close. Kandel then referenced Hughling Jackson’s research, which concluded that “certain parts of the brain inhibit other parts and that damage to left hemisphere can free up capabilities in the right hemisphere.”
It is very possible that is what happened with Close, an artist not deterred by his disabilities but driven by them.