Chuck Close once called faces ‘a road map of someone's life’. In his work he navigates these road maps like an experienced wayfarer, exploring each delicate wrinkle and pore of the subject’s face meticulously, and using highly inventive techniques to document his journey.

The first of these faces you see when you walk into 'Chuck Close: Prints, Process and Collaboration' at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art is an enormous photorealist painting called ‘Bob’ (1969-70), which was acquired by James Mollison in 1975 for the National Gallery in Canberra. In typical Chuck Close fashion we see a deadpan depiction of the subject, stage-set designer Robert Israel, which could almost be described as a mug shot. The portrait hardly reveals anything about the subject’s personality yet ever so much about the craft behind the work and the meticulous nature of his Close’s creative process. Of the thematic triad that holds this exhibition together, ‘process’ is probably the most important to note. Many of the works in this show at the MCA are accompanied by a number of process works. Like piecing together a jigsaw puzzle, the exhibition maps the gradual blossoming of Close’s awe-inspiring prints .

Unlike the spontaneous brushstrokes of some of his contemporaries, Close's process is far more methodical. Many of his works are the product of intense manual labour and are mathematically precise. He ascribes his highly inventive techniques partly to his difficulty of recognising faces – a lifelong condition called prosopagnosia. By freezing the faces photographically, he renders them user-friendly. In a 2010 article in The New Yorker he tells writer Oliver Sacks:

I essentially have no memory at all for people in real space. But when I flatten them out in a photograph I can commit that image to memory.

The photograph he uses as a base is a polaroid he takes from the subject, often friends or family, in an attempt to fix their faces in his mind. The image get scaled up to large canvas, divided by a horizontal or diamond axis and then meticulously reconstructed square by square, and subjected to a process of distillation through very forms of  printmaking and finally realised. In an interview with the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Close said that the reason he follows a grids goes back to his learning disabilities. “I am often overwhelmed by the whole. If I break things down into small, bite-sized pieces then this big, overwhelming problem becomes much more solvable.” Speaking to BLOUIN ARTINFO, Close said that for him, the process is about using a series of integers – small bits of information – to create a whole. “By breaking up the photograph in a grid, I divide the whole into individual bits of information. I’m only looking at each square when I translate that information from one square to another,” he explained. 

The exhibition gives a real insight into both the process and the life of an art world superstar, which makes this exhibition not only a comprehensive survey of a truly unique artist, but also an invaluable lesson in printmaking and colour theory.

Chuck Close: Prints, Process and Collaboration is on display at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art until March 15. Details here.