Revolutionary modern painter and printmaker Chuck Close suffers from the medical condition prosopagnosia, a neurological aflliction that renders the artist, in layman’s terms, “face blind.” That is to say, Close’s ability to remember the distinguishing facial features of even his closest friends and colleagues is essentially nonexistent. This exceedingly rare disease poses an incredible challenge to its sufferers, not only in their day to day social interactions, but also in that it proves to be very isolating, as the afflicted live in a world where everyone they encounter is a complete stranger.
Face blindness has hardly defeated the strong-willed Close, however, as his condition, or rather his desire to defeat it, has quite contrarily led him by the hand through the arduous trials and travails of his career to the point where he is today. The painstakingly detailed “big portraits” of his early years as a painter, indeed, carried the important task of subduing Close’s face recognition issues while simultaneously propelling him to the forefront of the art world.
As I recently perused various magazine clippings and books about the great painter, I quite expectedly found his story enthralling and equally inspiring, but also, for a reason which was at the time very difficult to understand, painfully unsettling. In the blink of an eye, I saw the faces of all of the acquaintences and friends and family I’ve known through the years flash before me. And then I saw my own face. Not face that I wash at the bathroom sink every morning. Not the face I percieve as I gaze into the muddy water of the lake near my house. But the face that my peers, my professors, my parents see.
A veritable modern-day Janus, I struggle in angered futility to converse with the face that’s on the other side. I realize in the violent struggle, though, that the only thing that will ease my woes is for one of us to just shut up and give in to the other.
In a way, I envy Close and his condition: if everyone I encountered was a total stranger, I wouldn’t feel the need to act and to speak and to think in ways so alien to my own person.
In a way, we all share the artist’s struggle: we act and we speak and we think differently around others, and we are complete strangers to ourselves.
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