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Issue 227

Charles Gaines on the Paradoxes of Seeing

Ahead of his Creative Time commission in New York, the artist speaks with poet Harmony Holiday

BY Harmony Holiday AND Charles Gaines in Features , Interviews | 28 APR 22

Harmony Holiday In the early 1970s, you began working on the series ‘Gridwork’ that disrupted the established, white art world.

Charles Gaines There are two main bodies of work, ‘Gridwork’ and ‘Black Language’. When I started developing ‘Gridwork’, people of colour and women were marginalized out of the art world. Very few Black artists got in. There were people who had exhibitions, but they weren’t showing in mainstream spaces or blue-chip galleries. Maybe only three artists of my generation showed at venues like that. I showed at John Weber and Leo Castelli galleries, and I was the first Black artist either gallery had exhibited. But when I did ‘Gridwork’, the Black artists looked at it and accused me of making white art.

HH They were like: where’s the Black subject?

CG Yes. They couldn’t figure out how a Black person could make art that didn’t reflect their experience as a Black person.

Charles Gaines, Faces: Women, Series Two - Eight Faces, Set D, Face #4, "Parween Mody", 1978, photograph and ink on paper, three framed sheets, 61 × 51 × 4 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Hauser & Wirth; photograph: Fredrik Nilsen

HH Only you were doing that – just in a different way.

CG Fifteen years later, I finally figured that out. But, at the time, I couldn’t answer that question. There was this general idea that, since art is a process of self-expression, you should express your subjective experiences. This, in turn, fed into the idea that art stems from your lived experience, which led, even beyond the level of politics, to the idea of a Black essentialism. In other words: if you’re not making work around the Black subject, then you’re making white art. I didn’t believe in essentialist strategies, nor did I believe in a pure art. But, I didn’t simply reject the question – I thought it was legitimate – I just couldn’t answer it.

HH You once mentioned in a talk that you are suspicious of the imagination. Do you still think that way?

CG Yes. For me, it’s the core issue. The thing I want people to consider when we talk about my work is that it hasn’t been produced by the imagination – even if you can still respond to it as you might any other work of art. I’m not saying that there’s no such thing as imagination or intuition or subjectivity, but I think they’re all constructs. Modernist art is built upon the myth of subjectivity: that it’s a universal language which transcends local, cultural, social and political interests. There is a way to think about these affective and aesthetic constructs politically, but it’s an uphill struggle. Even today, after I’ve been talking about these ideas for the last 25 years, there’s resistance.

Charles Gaines, Numbers and Faces: Multi-Racial/Ethnic Combinations Series 1: Face #13, Ellen Yoshi Tani (Japanese/Irish/Danish/English), 2020, acrylic paint, acrylic sheet and photograph, 170 × 140 × 20 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Hauser & Wirth; photograph: Alex Delfanne

HH Imagination is related to memory more than anything else. In your ‘Numbers and Trees’ works – which form part of the ‘Gridwork’ series – you take time out of the picture, which is really interesting because trees are so ancient and timeless, their eternalness defying certain systems. In my opinion, rational thought is also part of the imagination – something that we have all opted to agree upon, as well as weird constructs like race or certain aspects of language. The poet and cultural theorist Fred Moten writes: ‘When the state calls you into being, who are they calling?’ I always think about this in terms of language – how English is the means of trapping all these constructs. I believe you also spoke about ‘unnaming’ in that same talk. I see this in some of your work with semiotics, how the writings of someone like Fred are subverted and undermined, which is something you’re familiar with. He uses English to elevate language on the level with his best poetry. That’s making Black art for me: how do we get out of this stupid language game?

CG Yes, absolutely.

HH I love the idea of trees and gridding. Is drumming still part of your practice?

CG It’s not part of the practice, but music is.

Charles Gaines, Shadows VIII, Set 1, 1980, photographs, ink on paper, four sheets, overall 65 × 181 × 5 cm (framed). Courtesy: the artist and Hauser & Wirth; photograph: Fredrik Nilsen

HH There’s something subversive about a Black person being allowed to think about trees and plants. I love Stevie Wonder’s album Journey Through the Secret Lives of Plants [1979]. There are no lyrics – just beautiful synth music – and that’s a luxury. You must be brave or famous to reclaim nature as a Black person. I have been collecting images of Black musicians playing outside. When I told Fred about it, he called it ‘the Black Outside’. It raises the questions of how and where we perform and the aesthetic of non-performance, which is something Fred talks about in Consent Not To Be a Single Being [2017–18]. This idea that, as a Black person, you’re usually occupying a space at the invitation of someone white or in a position of authority – ‘Negro: now you perform!’ – versus the mundane daily performance of Blackness that we must enact because we’re constantly having to portray this idea of ourselves. Some of the best performances – by Sun Ra or Amiri Baraka, for instance – have taken place outside. Yet, there are other, more ominous connotations for Black people and trees: the appalling history of lynching in the US and its associations with the Billie Holiday song ‘Strange Fruit’ [1939], which has led to a fear of nature, of the terrible things that can happen outdoors, versus reigniting a passion for it.

CG My interest in trees and other natural objects is rooted in an aesthetic that encapsulates my experience of those things. If they’re produced, it’s like they inexorably produced themselves. The tree is instrumental in the sense that I’m using its image as a framework through which to address issues of representation by means of a systematic, intellectual process. Trees lend themselves to the gridded image. Not all images do that. But, the fact is, I don’t work with inanimate objects; all my subjects come from the natural world, which includes the human body. And there’s clearly an aesthetic at play that is beyond simply the instrumental use of objects, because the structures I am creating are designed to aggregate systematically. But I’m not aggregating radiators.

Charles Gaines, Numbers and Trees: London Series 1, Tree #9, Idol Lane, 2020, acrylic sheet, acrylic paint and photograph in three parts, 241 × 336 × 8 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Hauser & Wirth; photograph: Alex Delfanne

The instrumental suitability of trees allows me to deal with the perceptual paradox whereby the grid and the system can be understood as a means of microscopically examining humans’ perceptual apparatus, the very foundation of vision. It’s not a question of whether that object exists in the world as a totality because we don’t perceive anything as a totality: our vision unifies any differences. It has been demonstrated that, when we see things originate as fragments, our brains – informed and influenced by our learning and experience – aggregate them. I’m less interested in closed systems – in the evolution of things moving from one state to another – than in systems that are synchronic structures. In relation to this synchronic structure, you see two things in my work: oneness as a numerical, geometric operation based on elements such as numbers and lines; and oneness as an entire object. But there’s no way to explain how one results from the other. And this is the point I want to make: that, simultaneously, you’re both looking at and not looking at an object. Given this paradox, the question in terms of representation becomes: how can we see things that are meaningful within the fragmentary system that we use to access them?

HH Your ‘Gridwork’ series has also included some human faces.

CG There are two recent series of ‘Faces’: one was shown at New York’s Paula Cooper Gallery in 2018 and the other at Hauser & Wirth, London, in 2021. Making the earliest version of these works, from the late 1970s, was a challenge. I wanted to apply a grid box to a face, which was the first time I had created a political context for the application of a system. But the struggle I was having was not necessarily how to digitize the face, but how to digitize it so that these critical issues in terms of representation were raised. It took me a long time to come to terms with that piece.

Charles Gaines, Walnut Tree Orchard: Set S, 1975, photograph, ink on paper, three sheets, each 71 × 61 × 6 cm (framed). Courtesy: the artist and Hauser & Wirth; photograph: Jeff McLane

HH It seems like faces would be as easy as trees.

CG The problem with the face is that you must make a decision about what to include and what not to include. With the tree, you don’t need to: you include everything.

HH Why would you not include things on a face?

CG Because you have to deal with the eyes, nose, mouth, hairline …

HH The little permutations in every face.

CG With a tree, you’re gridding the branch system. That’s just one thing.

HH But what about the leaves?

CG I don’t do leaves. I started doing leaves when I did palm trees – which are not actually trees – but they’re still singular because I just did the plant as a whole.

Charles Gaines, Numbers and Trees: Palm Canyon, Palm Trees Series 2, Tree #5, Quechan, 2019, acrylic sheet, acrylic paint and photograph in two parts, overall 278 × 149 × 15 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Hauser & Wirth; photograph: Fredrik Nilsen

HH It’s a canopy.

CG And you wholly recognize that there’s a representation of a tree before you. But, if you didn’t make those editorial choices on the face, you wouldn’t see a face.

HH The face is a pattern, basically. And our mind learns to recognize patterns. When I look at your face, I see a pattern of information that my brain puts together.

CG In applying grids to faces, I’ve learned that you’re dealing with the issue of difference rather than sameness. Trees and plants have distinctly different shapes, but that difference is singular: when you chart one form, the variations immediately emerge. With faces, there are a dozen different forms, which taught me that I couldn’t deal in this way with some of the issues of representation. It’s true there’s a general structure to the face and to the head and, in that similarity, you can layer faces on top of each other. But what I’ve discovered is that, with regards to the face, the language is different than that of plants. The similarities and disparities between faces didn’t contribute to what was interesting, which was what I had been looking for in the tree works. They contributed more to the idea of difference
than sameness – that somehow, when you saw the amalgam, it dealt with the issue of multiracial and multi-ethnic. I thought that there was an interesting, allegorical way of looking at the layering of faces as a genealogical metaphor, especially in terms of dealing with the subject of race. There is a genealogical discourse around the question of similarity (and difference) in race. But, for me, it turned out to be the issue of race, based upon those tropes of difference and similarity. It was more symbolic and more metaphorical in that series of faces than the trees – principally because recognition is so dynamic when you are dealing with faces.

Portrait of Charles Gaines, 2022. Courtesy and photograph: Emanuel Hahn

HH It seems almost tonal – that’s what’s cool about faces. They speak a language. Inflection, tone and cadence are important to how someone moves their face. Even with twins, the way they hold their features can mean that their bone structures develop distinctively over time. We speak so much with our bodies.

CG With Moving Chains – which, along with Mound [both works 2022] in Times Square, will launch next month on Governors Island, New York, before touring to Ohio and Kentucky – the idea was to make a sculptural piece that addressed the American economy of the 17th and 18th centuries. The structure is to be experienced in two different ways: from the top and from the side. Walking down the staircase, you see a belt of eight chains, which expand to 30 metres in length. These chains replicate the movement and pace of the Mississippi River, except for the central chain – the one that’s in colour – which is designed to move at the speed of the steamboats that used to transport the cotton gathered by enslaved people. The idea is that, when you enter, Moving Chains evolves from an artwork to this huge metaphor. It’s supposed to be intimidating.

HH Is it loud?

CG It's going to be loud.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 227 with the headline ‘Interview: Charles Gaines’.

Main image: Charles Gaines, Numbers and Trees: London Series 2, Tree #3, Minerva Walk (detail), 2022, acrylic sheet, acrylic paint, lacquer and wood, 152 × 210 × 14 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Hauser & Wirth; photograph: Fredrik Nilsen

Harmony Holiday is a poet and performer. Her books include Reparations (2020) and A Jazz Funeral for Uncle Tom (2020). Her latest book Maafa will be released later this year.

Charles Gaines is an artist. He has been the subject of numerous exhibitions worldwide, and his work is in prominent public collections including the Museum of Modern Art, New York, the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, the Studio Museum in Harlem, New York and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.