The styles, methods, motivations, and geo-political contexts of Chuck Close, Shepherd Fairey and JR could not be more different, but the works these three artists create, while equally fascinating, do contain certain key similarities. The following article will provide an in depth overview of the careers of each of these artists and analyse in what way the works of both the more conventional painter Chuck Close and the street artist Shepherd Fairey share various elements with the works of the photographer JR .
Chuck Close paints photorealistic portraits on massive canvases by using grids to enlarge colour as well as black and white photographs and thus allow exhaustive precision. A sufferer of face blindness, also known as Prosopagnosia, a condition which left him unable to recognize faces, Close only realized twenty years after the start of his art career that he must have subconsciously decided to paint portraits so that he could remember faces better. Close started out employing the airbrush technique, but after a stroke which left him mostly paralyzed he adopted the techniques of grisaille and pointillism. As photorealism (some would even say hyperrealism) would suggest, his use of colour was purely objective, especially during his airbrush phase. Later, with his adoption of pointillism his use of colour became less objective, as this technique demands that particular points must be of more or less subjective colour so as to maintain the objective realism of the work as a whole. In other words, close examination of Close’s airbrushed works would reveal machine-like reproduction of detail down to the minutest features, a near-perfect recreation of the subject photo, while close examination of his pointillism works would expose dots of colour not entirely accurate to those in the subject photo, but which seen together from a distance would create a fairly realistic rendition of this same photo. In any case, although Close’s paralysis limited the intense meticulousness of his paintings, he had always intentionally handicapped his hyperrealism long before his stroke, using materials that did not lend themselves well to a photorealistic result. Despite this self-imposed limitation, he always proved himself able to create the incredibly realistic and intriguing effects he desired.
Shepherd Fairey is a cult graphic artist whose guerrilla-style art developed from the graffiti scene. Fairey began his career by designing pieces to garner fame amongst his art school and skateboard friends. Motivated by early and wide-spread public interest, he expanded his activities, producing his now famous stencil paintings and also flyposting and stencil spray painting on walls in public locations, often illegally. Contrary to Close, the majority of Fairey’s works only contain a few colours (red, white, and black are the most common) and tones, as can be expected from the stencil medium, and feature social and political subjects as well as inflammatory slogans. Fairey’s objective is to have his art cause people to react it, to search for its meaning, and to question their socio-political surroundings. He therefore believes that the street is the best display ground for his art as there it will be able to influence the most people, whereas if his art was kept in a museum it’s audience would be restricted, a concept that would be absolutely foreign to Close. Though Shepherd’s art undoubtedly sends strong messages to the masses, he is a much more commercial artist than Close. That is, the publicizing of his art through sales of his works in print form on clothing as well as his many commissioned jobs have made him so much money that one can begin to question whether he’s a true populist artist or simply in the business for the profit.
JR, an anonymous artist, photographs people doing their own caricature, i.e. distorting their own features in their pose for his camera, and illegally flyposts these large portraits on walls in public areas, in a similar manner to the appropriation of the built environment practiced by Fairey. Initially a teenage graffiti artist, JR traveled Europe so as to meet and observe artists who used outdoor walls in their mode of creative expression. He soon began taking the portraits of these people and pasting them up in huge format in the streets and on the rooftops, the vertical limits he so often pondered when he listened to their diverse messages. JR travelled the world taking pictures of the inhabitants of Paris’ housing projects, Israel/Palestine’s cities, Africa’s slums, and Brazil’ favelas. His photos, exclusively in black and white, resemble the limited variety of colours and tones present in Fairey’s works, but his use of the portrait style is more closely paralleled by Close’s focus on the face in his paintings. It must be noted here that all three artists have comparable work sizes. JR is a true populist artist and, unlike Fairey and to a lesser extent Close, makes no profit directly through his art; he is entirely concentrated on the development of his work and the powerful message of coexistence his photographs send to the masses. Similarly to Fairey, JR also seeks to expose people who do not go to museums to his art’s message by flyposting his works in poor urban areas. In addition, by not framing his huge photos he hopes to promote a smoother interaction between subject and viewer, an important part of his art’s impact. The message as well as peoples’ relationship with it are such intrinsic elements of JR’s work that, combined with his aforementioned low revenue, he may even be considered more of an activist than artist.
Despite the very varied techniques of Close, Fairey and JR, their art does contain certain commonalities. The focus on the face shared by Close and JR as well as the importance of the message in the works of Fairey and JR are the two strongest examples of such ties. However, such is the diversity of these three artist’s mediums and styles that it would be impossible to extrapolate where these artists’ careers will have taken them in a few years.