The conceptual work of Charles Gaines.

When we overlay an image or a thing onto something else, it’s ostensibly an attempt to cover up the original; an attempt to hide what we once considered worthy of viewing, and what we now consider to be irrelevant or obscene.

In Charles Gaines’ (1944-) conceptual work the act of covering up is not a reductive action, but is given strength. Instead of masking, Gaines layers his images on top of one another as a way to highlight what lies underneath, to draw attention to the image that sits waiting to be viewed.

Gaines was one of the earliest proponents of conceptual art. His contemporaries included art world heavyweights, like Sol Lewitt, Joseph Kosuth, and Ed Ruscha, though Gaines would have to wait to receive the same level of recognition. Gaines, a Black artist first and conceptual artist second, seemed to be at odds with the Black Arts Movement of the 1970s. His work followed conceptual lines, which required a sense of detaching the self from the image, generating work that didn’t appear, at least on the surface, to speak to the social and political climate of his time. “How do I say that drawing 450 million numbers is really my expression of racial identity?” For Gaines, identity and inner subjectivity are as present in his conceptual work as they are in the work of other Black artists of the time. The numbers are just his way of showing it.

Conceptual artists often find themselves searching for a mythically sterilized form, where ideas of beauty and excess are absent replaced by an expanded idea of what art is, can, and should be. The aim of conceptual art was to “remove subjectivity from art by following self-determined rules and procedures.” Gaines, on the other hand, is engaged in a search for the subjective within the objective; an attempt to find identity between the numbers and lines seen so prominently in his works.

In an interview with Courtney J. Martin, Gaines is clear in his intention to create artwork that challenges the viewer. “My use of systems is not as an empirical or documentary tool. I use systems in order to provoke the issues around representation.” In Regression: Drawing #1, Group #2 (1973-74), the idea of the system is in full view. Here, Gaines draws a series of boxes with each representing a number. At first sight, it’s a practice in the formulaic: a work rooted in logic and repetition. A deeper inspection of the work, however, reveals Gaines proclivity for producing tensions between logical systems and the human/artist’s hand.

Within Gaines’ “Regression” series, each work builds upon the next. Gaines is playing with a duality between disordered nature and methodical practice: as each piece is completed, the numbers Gaines writes morph into a growing organism.

As Barry Schwabsky writes, the formula on display in “Regression” is “according to criteria that I can’t succeed in reconstructing.”

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The Mackayan is part of the Houghton & Mackay organisation.


By Alex Stubbs: arts columnist.

identity and inner subjectivity are as present in his conceptual work as they are in the work of other Black artists of the time.

We see this process again in Gaines’ Walnut Tree Orchard, Set 4 (version 2) (1975-2014). Here, Gaines displays a deconstruction of the organic nature of the tree. First into a series of lines that cross the boundaries of the grid, and then once more, this time according to Gaines’ abstracted grid formula.

The object of the tree makes a return in Gaines first UK solo show, “Charles Gaines: Multiples of Nature, Trees and Faces.” The exhibition, currently on view at Hauser & Wirth, brings together two of Gaines most prominent series to date – “Numbers and Trees” and “Numbers and Faces” – seeing the artist explore new ground in each. His faces are portraits of individuality that melt into each other, creating a vision of oneness. As Gaines himself notes, these portraits examine “ideas of representation, more specifically the political and cultural ideas that shape our understanding of the concept of multiracial identity.”

Working for the first time in the UK, Gaines takes inspiration from the trees of Melbury in Dorset, the result of which is a gloriously detailed exploration of form and system. Sitting behind a plexiglass frame, each of Gaines’ trees are engaged in conversation with one another. Gaines assigns a specific colour to each tree, depicting the full form of the tree against the backdrop of a detailed black and white photograph of the tree in question.

As the series develops, Gaines layers trees on top of one another, building a collage of colour and gridwork. By the time we reach the concluding work, London Series 1, Tree #9, Idol Lane, the series has evolved into a fantastical display of bright colours; each tree now present in a celebration of nature and the artist’s meticulous labour. Returning again to Schwabsky’s analysis of Gaines’ work, it is the intensity with which the works are created that is so critical to their success: “Gaines may be an artist of ideas, but what makes the ideas compelling as art is the evident devotion with which they are, quite literally, drawn out.”

It’s true that Gaines sits comfortably in the conceptual art tradition; systems and ideas as art are the foundations upon which he builds his work. But to say that these are works devoid of emotion and personality just isn’t the case. With Gaines, we’re lucky enough to get it all, and that is wherein lies the true beauty of his work.“Charles Gaines: Multiples of Nature, Trees and Faces” is on view at Hauser & Wirth from 29th January – 1st May 2021. The exhibition can be viewed digitally.

MACKAYAN: capturing multiplicity

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