A self portrait by Chuck Close
In doing some research on Prosopagnosia, a psychological condition which distorts the perception of faces I stumbled across the fascinating and inspiring case of Chuck Close, a man more famous for his spell-binding art than his prosopagnosia. Prosopagnosia doesn’t actually affect the ability to see in any way but rather the ability to recognise faces in the normal uniquely human way.
The current consensus in the literature is that we can remember such an extroardinarily large number of faces beause we use a vector based mathematical model called the “Face Space model”. According to this model we remember faces by what makes them specifically different from the average face rather than having a photographic memory for faces as a whole. This explanation has been used to generate the powerful face recognition algorithms we are beginning to see employed in intelligent CCTV systems.
For some however, the part of the brain (the “fusiform face area”) that handles this information is damaged. This can cause an individual who is intelligent and able in every sense of the word fail to be able to distinguish their closest friends and family. This became common knowledge for many after the famous “case of the man who mistook his wife for a hat” by Neuroscientist Oliver Sacks. Oliver Sacks has only recently with his book “Inside The Mind’s Eye” declared himself to suffer from a milder case of prosopagnosia.
Until now I’ve read much on prosopagnosia but been quite unable to remotely grasp how it must feel. It’s been described as being like a human trying to distinguish sheep based on their facial features, something simply incomprehensible in the same way as human faces. Taking a look at Chuck Close’s artwork however gives us a window in to how it must feel. Chuck draws faces by taking a photograph and then dividing it in to pixels and painstakingly copying the shading from the pixels on to huge canvases. The effect of this is somewhat amazing. If you stand directly infront of the canvas it is almost impossible to discern anything apart from a seemingly random blur of colour. It is only when one steps back that the amazingly intricate features of the human face become apparent.
I found the following Chuck Close piece on an art blog that gives a wonderful description of the piece yet remains starkly oblivious to the mental condition that enabled it…
“I cannot even imagine the creativity, design sense and fabric knowlege needed to construct this spectacular rug/portrait out of silk and linen. It is an amazing experience to stand in front of it and back up little by little until the montage of colors becomes a face full of character.”
Upon understanding exactly how this work came to be makes the piece just that bit more beautiful. I find humbling to be able to take a glimpse out of the eyes of someone with this condition. At the same time it is strangely awe-inspiring, in a way that compels the viewer to want to explore their consciousness that bit further (than perhaps is, technically, legally allowed). Until now I thought the art work of individuals with synaesthesia was likely to be the most (naturally) psychologically influenced art to provoke that effect, but that discussion is for another day.
If you think you might have prosopagnosia you can participate in current research virtually in an online test with the prosopagnosia research centre here.
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