Charles Gaines

A provocative survey at the Hammer Museum of Gaines&' early work from 1974-1989 chronicles the emergence of the influential California conceptual artist.

“Numbers and Trees VI, Landscape #3),” 1989, Charles Gaines, Acrylic sheet, acrylic paint, watercolor, silkscreen, photograph, 46 5⁄8″ x 38 5⁄8″
Photo: Robert Wedemeyer Courtesy the artist and
Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects

In 2011-in its last iteration before the Hammer Museum adopted the branding “Made in LA” for its biennial survey shows-the Hammer’s big invitational exhibition was titled “All of this and nothing.” It featured 14 artists, many of them notable. Yet in his write-up in the LA Times, influential critic Christopher Knight chose just a single artist to discuss: Charles Gaines. That anomalous fact alone gives testimony to the haunting, and perhaps unlikely, potency of Gaines’ artwork. Making that moment all the more striking is the dryly rigorous, even formulaic nature of Gaines’ conceptual approach. Titled Manifestos, Gaines’ installation adapted excerpts from four revolutionary manifestos drawn from 20th century history-the International Socialists, the Mexican Zapatistas, the Situationists of the French student uprising in the 1960s, and the Black Panthers here at home. Using a systematic formula of translation, of corresponding letters in the texts to notes and rests, Gaines generated musical scores from each of the texts, filtering their meaning down to moody, alphabetically transcribed notes, which he presented in two forms: as stately, hand-drawn musical scores, and as actual music, played on pianos, emanating from speakers as the scores rolled by on monitors. At once elegiac and arbitrary, the piece seems to straddle contradictory impulses, melding a pre-determined, almost mathematical conceptual imperative, and the very real human yearning underlying social liberation movements.

That contrast between a systematic conceptual process and far more indeterminate result infuses much of Gaines’ work. That same year, in a show at Susanne Vielmetter, Gaines gave his systematic analysis an even more poetic visual dimension, conflating similar historic texts with haunting evocations of starry night skies, which appeared through the words as the lights in the gallery slowly dimmed, the configuration of which were determined by the dates the texts were written. Confronting the work, a viewer had to negotiate powerful competing impulses, of the physical experience itself, with all its physical sensation and projected yearning, and the precise mechanics of the artist’s pre-determined formula. Which aspects are intentional? Which are random? Where does the concept end, and the viewer’s real-time experience of it begin?

Currently, LA viewers have a chance to ponder the genesis of these deceptively complex issues, as Gaines returns to the Hammer in a provocative survey of his early works spanning 15 years. Curated by Naima J. Keith, of the Studio Museum in Harlem, where the show originated last summer, “Charles Gaines: Gridwork 1974-1989” (February 7 – May 24, 2015) features over 80 pieces from a seminal period in the artist’s career, including several series, as well as some appealing ephemera that offer a glimpse into the commercial gallery milieu of his early career. But between the lines-and there are plenty of them, in the numerous, near obsessive grids he created as scaffolds for his serial works-the show posits Gaines as a notable figure in the evolution of conceptual art, bridging the early generation of the 1960s and ’70s and the more overtly political and identity-based art that emerged in force in the following decades. Knowing Gaines’ current oeuvre certainly helps lend context to these works, which at first can seem like dryly programmatic experiments. But they are experiments that are assiduously realized, inspired by artistic pioneers such as John Cage, with his use of chance, and early conceptualists like Sol LeWitt. And with their fascination with real-world representation, they offer a perspective that is subtly distinct from other conceptual art of the era. Spend time with them, and the rigorous reasoning and determination behind Gaines’ stance is striking; one can see how he became an influential teacher, first at Fresno, as of 1968, and since 1990, at the heady bastion of CalArts.

Although known as an LA artist, it’s worth noting that Gaines’ background is far from monolithic: born in South Carolina, he was raised in Newark, and got an MFA from Rochester Institute of Technology. Even after he arrived at Fresno State College-where he taught for over two decades-Gaines showed more in New York than in LA, after Sol LeWitt introduced him to gallerists Leo Castelli and John Weber. In 1975, he also participated in the Whitney Biennial. The fact that he was working as an African-American conceptual artist, at a time when other African-American artists were increasingly addressing racial issues in their art, also put him in a unique position. Because Gaines’ stance is so distinct, the works in this survey are especially useful in revealing how his lexicon emerged.

So how did Gaines come to embrace conceptualism in the first place? As the artist explains: “I was trained as painter. But… I was troubled by the idea of expressivity. I was troubled by the idea of a practice based on subjective expression. I wanted to find a way to make art that didn’t involve subjectivity.” His earliest works in this show, his Regression series (1973-74) and Calculations (1975), read more like data quantification charts or math assignments than visual compositions, but establish the foundation for his working process, by using hand-drawn grids akin to graph paper, which he fills in with tiny numerals by way of establishing shapes or visual mass, according to strict pre-set calculations. The show begins to take on more complexity, and a more active visual component, once Gaines introduces representation and photographic imagery into his process. This friction-between the object itself and the various systems representing it -becomes a kind of electric current charging the works. As Gaines observes: “Photographs are supposed to stand in for reality. But we know they are systems of representation, too.”

Gaines’ Walnut Tree Orchard series from 1975 (with individual works touched up since then), marks his first use of photography. Each work presents a triptych; at left is a B&W photograph of a bare tree from a walnut orchard, at center, that same organic tree form silhouetted on a grid, and finally, at right, the tree is rendered onto the grid via multiple numerical boxes. In the final box, the quantified trees are layered on top of each other to create a cumulative orchard, so that ultimately, in the final set, the last box contains the overlapping number-forms of all 26 trees in the series. In his collection of everyday iconography, Gaines echoes the architectural studies of the Bechers in Germany or Ed Ruscha in Los Angeles, though the subject of the walnut orchard adds a subtle but distinctly Central California motif. But the power of the work comes from the contrast between the organic, even iconic, form itself and way his system attempts to distill it.

The discrepancy is even more notable in his Faces series (1978-79), in which Gaines applied a similar triptych format to 16 B&W portrait photos. Among his subjects are a variety of human types-men and women, black and white-many of whom were artist colleagues of his at Fresno State College. Here, the distinguishing outlines of the face at left are presented as a white-on-black outlines in the gridded translation at center; while at right, the various silhouettes are superimposed atop each other, so that the last image contains color-coded outlines of all the faces in the set: a collective community. The first piece in which he engages issues of human identity, the work implicitly examines the individual’s relationship to a larger social unit. But again, it asks more questions than it answers; the more information is entered into the system, the more chaotic the result. Rather than clarifying (or even neutralizing) the subjects’ racial and gender differences, the system’s additive process merely muddies and obscures them. Thus, the project suggests a self-critiquing machine, whose program is to draw attention to its own fallibility.

In his ensuing works, Gaines continued to advance the complexity of his inquiries, like a scientist factoring in new variables. In his series Falling Leaves (1978), using 16 triptychs, he documented an individual tree’s loss of leaves with the autumn, starting with a color photograph, continuing to a grid, and finally plotting the missing area of the leaves at the bottom of the frame, to create a visual depiction merged with a bar graph. In his Incomplete Text series (1978-79), Gaines adapted his triptych format to language, subtracting letters from a text according to a pre-determined equation, as the meanings of the words begin to disintegrate, and using the results to construct new texts in the form of poems. In doing so, Gaines looked at language itself as a representation of reality, which can be dismantled and distilled to reveal false or obscure meanings, not unlike a visual image. In his series Motion: Trisha Brown Dance (1980-81), he extended his systematic inquiry to the body in motion, making time-lapse portraits of the celebrated postmodern dancer using two photos, and a series of smaller gridded translations. Here, it is the individual dancer whose bodily movements eventually meld into a color-coded abstraction, which eventually obscures the figure that generated it.

In Numbers and Trees (1986-1989), Gaines returns to the tree as subject, this time juxtaposing a photograph of a tree with his gridded analysis by painting the translated data units on a Plexiglas sheet which he mounted directly on top of it. As Gaines explains, “I tried to collapse seriality into a single object.” A hint of mischief seeping through the explication, he then adds: “Everyone said you can’t paint acrylic on Plexi, so don’t do it. So I did it!” Distilling his sequential format into a single image, the works also allowed him to return to painting, with the expressive element now completely expunged and replaced by a coldly objective, indexical presentation. By using dramatic colors, which, beyond their coding are in fact arbitrary, he also adds an eye-catching, if falsely poetic element, which invites the viewer to project his/her own associations onto the work. As Gaines explains, “Color, feeling-those are all part of the cognitive process.”

It is that interactive element, inviting the viewer’s projections, that makes Gaines’ works at times so confounding to experience. As curator Naima Keith observes: “You look at his work, and see it as so rigid, but it’s really inviting the viewer to question the limits of a system… The difference between him and other conceptualists is his desire to test the limits of a system, but also, to invite the viewer to question it for themselves.”


“Faces, Set #11: Mary Ann Aloojian,” 1978, Charles Gaines
Photograph, ink on paper, Triptych: 23″ x 19″ each (framed)
Photo: Robert Wedemeyer, courtesy Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects

Even beyond the theoretical distinctions that separate Gaines from the earlier conceptual artists who inspired him-his interest in representation, language, and ideology, e.g.-there is a clear physical distinction. Whereas LeWitt’s whole process became defined by its concept, such that anyone following his instructions could make the artwork, in Gaines’ case, it is the artist himself who fulfills the pre-set dicta, with meticulous dedication. Although both reject the equation of self-expression with artistic authorship, as Keith observes: “The amount of patience, time, and energy that goes into each individual work is mind-blowing.” Yet, in other aspects, Gaines seems to continue the implicit values of the conceptualist vanguard; as SFMOMA (and ex-Hammer) curator Gary Garrels wrote of Sol LeWitt, in 2000, “He accepted contradiction and paradox, the inconclusiveness of logic.” In her essay for the show’s catalogue, Hammer senior curator Anne Ellegood locates Gaines as opening up conceptualism to broader questions of ideological and institutional critique. As she writes: “Gaines recognized an opening within it, and was drawn to the way its preoccupation with the role of art inevitably led to an analysis of the institutions of art, and their undeniable social implications. He began to introduce profound questions of representation into a seemingly rigid conceptualism. Moreover, at the heart of Gaines’ operations is his utter commitment to a belief that art, by its very nature, is political.”

That self-awareness may be Gaines’ most potent tool. Perhaps fittingly, in recent years, Gaines has gained further currency through the slew of notable LA artists who’ve emerged from CalArts as his students, such as Edgar Arceneaux, Rodney McMillian, Andrea Bowers, Sam Durant and Mark Bradford. Bradford, in addition to his own practice, is spearheading the creation of a new cultural and social service nonprofit in the city’s historic Leimert Park neighborhood, where he spent much of his childhood. Called Art + Practice, the center features a 17,000-square-foot campus, including classrooms and a gallery, and will offer public programming coordinated with the Hammer. On February 28, the space will open with a debut exhibition of new works by Charles Gaines. These works will feature texts of a speech by Civil Rights activist Stokely Carmichael-“It’s almost like Richard Pryor wrote that speech!” Gaines exclaims-along with a printed score and libretto, which will be combined via Plexiglas, as per the later works in his Hammer survey. As with so much of Gaines’ work, one can expect the result to be at once disjunctive and disorienting, exacting and elusive, provoking the viewer’s own conflicted response.

During his early years, Gaines received surprisingly little critical attention. So if the interest garnered by this exhibition is belated, it is surely well earned. As Keith notes: “Charles didn’t start working in 1993, and his career didn’t start at CalArts.” By gathering together so much early work in one place, it can only aid the dialogue around a figure who remains as challenging as he is formidable. Says Keith, “I’m just excited to see the conversations that result.”