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Issue 217

Charles Gaines Blurs the Line

Rianna Jade Parker on a new work from the artist’s first UK solo show

BY Rianna Jade Parker in One Takes | 24 FEB 21

In her 2015 memoir Negroland, Margo Jefferson recounts her sheltered childhood among Chicago’s ‘coloured elite’ in the 1950s and ’60s – a position gained, in part, thanks to her class mobility, colourism and favourable physical features. Questioning her own subjectivity, external forces and the central tenets of her upbringing, Jefferson writes: ‘Privilege is provisional. Privilege can be denied, withheld, offered grudgingly and summarily withdrawn. Entitlement is impervious to the kinds of verbs that modify privilege. Our people have had to work, scrape for privilege, gobble it down when those who would snatch it away weren’t looking.’ Throughout the book, Jefferson offers nuances for rethinking the identities of non-white people, especially those measured

by their ‘mixedness’.

charles gaines numbers and faces
Charles Gaines, Numbers and Faces: Multi-Racial/Ethnic Combinations Series 1, Set A: Face #11, Martina Crouch (Nigerian Igbo Tribe/White), 2020. Courtesy: © Charles Gaines and Hauser & Wirth

For his first solo exhibition in the UK, American conceptual artist Charles Gaines continues his ‘Faces’ series (begun 1978) across Hauser & Wirth’s two London galleries. In ‘Numbers and Faces: Multi-Racial/Ethnic Combinations Series 1’ (2020), three people who self-identify as multi-racial or multi-ethnic are represented in a triptych of acrylic gridworks. Gaines photographed the participants and assigned each face a bright colour for the contour lines and another for the space between. The portraits were then sequentially mapped out, with each gridded row assigned a different number, and plotted on top of one another, causing the images to merge in some areas and remain unchanged in others over the course of the series. 

Metaphorically, ‘Numbers and Faces: Multi-Racial/Ethnic Combinations Series 1’ operates as a conversational critique of ‘mixed’ identity. The amalgamation of these individuals is an analogy of the blurred lines between the practised and literal distinctions of genealogy or heredity. During a recent phone call, Gaines told me: ‘There is no science behind these differences. The importance given to them is an attempt to find categories to gain political power and representation. Tomorrow you can identify as white and gain more power and the more you identify as Black you get less power.’ The sharp reality, historically and presently, is that the risk of racial subordination is the most significant reason for fine-tuning distinctions of ethnicity and nationality. 

This article first appeared in frieze issue 217 with the headline 'Behind These Differences'.

Charles Gaines's solo exhibition ‘Multiples of Nature, Trees and Faces’ is on view at Hauser & Wirth, London, UK, until 1 May. A survey exhibition of his work is on long-term view at Dia Beacon, New York, USA. 

This article first appeared in frieze issue 217 with the headline ‘Behind These Differences’.

Main image: Charles Gaines, Numbers and Faces: Multi-Racial/Ethnic Combinations Series 1, Set A: Face #11, Martina Crouch (Nigerian Igbo Tribe/White) (detail), 2020. Courtesy: © Charles Gaines and Hauser & Wirth

Rianna Jade Parker is a writer, historian and curator. Her first book, A Brief History of Black British Art, was released by Tate Publishing in 2021, and her second is forthcoming from Frances Lincoln. She is an advisory board member for Forensic Architecture, a contributing writer of frieze and a contributing editor of Tate Publishing.