Charles Gaines

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This is Charles Gaines month in LA. A younger generation of KCRW listeners might better know the performances of his son Malik Gaines and his group My Barbarian. But Gaines has had a long and influential career as artist and teacher, since 1989, at Cal Arts.

An exhibition at the Hammer Museum, Charles Gaines: Gridwork 1974-1989, organized by Naima J. Keith for the Studio Museum in Harlem and on view through May 24, brings together the artist's earlier works completed before his move to LA.

Charles Gaines, "Regression: Drawing #7, Group #2," 1973–74
Mechanical ink and pen on paper, 23 × 29 in., 24¾ × 30¾ inches (framed)
Courtesy the artist and Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects
Photo: Robert Wedemeyer

Though trained as a painter, Gaines was confronted with the problem of criticality in the late 1960's. How to operate in the sphere of aesthetics without the weight of culture, history, received ideas about beauty and self-expression? Especially, one might add, as a young African American artist.

Charles Gaines, "Color Regression #3," 1978
Lithograph on BFK Rives, signed, dated and titled in pencil, 1980
27 9/10 × 31½ inches
Collection of Rodney Harder
Photo: Marc Bernier

The use of systems and seriality, popular with the early Conceptual artists, was a method that he tailored to his own ends. In fact, Sol Lewitt brought his early work to the attention of Leo Castelli and John Weber, who showed it at their New York Galleries. (Here in LA., he showed with Malinda Wyatt Gallery.)

While teaching in the 1970's at Fresno State College (now California State University, Fresco), a hotbed of political and social activism including the first outpost of the Feminist Art Project, Gaines initially executed meticulous graphs with tiny numbers that determined that execution of the work. Following the ideas of Conceptual artists of the 60's, he then added photography as a documentary element.

Charles Gaines, "Walnut Tree Orchard, Set 1" (version 2), 1975–2014
Photograph, ink on paper
Triptych: 29 × 23 inches each; 31½ × 25½ × 1½ inches (framed)
Courtesy the artist and Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects
Photo: Robert Wedemeyer

At the Hammer, one triptych includes a simple black and white photo of a walnut tree, a drawing of the tree transcribed by his numerical system, and another drawing that overlays the previous grid. He collapsed seriality as evidenced in his title "Walnut Tree Orchard." (1975) Gaines went on to pursue the technique with faces of colleagues and with photographs of the dancer Trisha Brown.

Charles Gaines, "Numbers and Trees V, Landscape #8: Orange Crow," 1989
Acrylic sheet, acrylic paint, watercolor, photograph, 46 5/8 × 38 5/8 inches
Collection of Bruce Bower
Courtesy the artist and Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects
Photo: Robert Wedemeyer

Gaines' interest in metaphor and content, however, ultimately separated his work from the earlier Conceptual artists and that is clarified in this show, which positions his art as a bridge to the politics of representation that emerged in the 1980's. Returning to the trees in 1986, Gaines used sheets of Plexiglas so that the renderings are layered one atop the other with colors applied as tiny squares according to specific numbers. They wind up being remarkably rewarding as refined works of art, portals to the art that he was to continue to create.

Charles Gaines, "Prototype for Librettos: Manuel de Falla/ Stokely Carmichael, Set 1," 2014

I said it was Charles Gaines month because, in addition to the early work at the Hammer, a new, specially created work is going on view in the gallery of Art + Practice, an initiative of artist Mark Bradford, philanthropist Eileen Harris Norton and activist Allen DiCastro in Leimert Park. Opening this Saturday, organized by Hammer curators Anne Ellegood and Jamillah James, is the Gaines exhibition Librettos: Manuel de Falla/Stokely Carmichael brings together the Spanish composer's tragic La Vida Breve, a 1904 opera about a gypsy girl who falls for a wealthy suitor, only to be humiliated to the point of death, with a 1964 speech by Black Panther Carmichael. The class struggle subtext of the opera is counterpoint to the issues brought up by the civil rights activist. I haven't yet seen the finished piece but Gaines said that he has again used Plexiglas as a device to complicate the reading of the texts, layering the documents atop one another. The opening of the show and the debut of Art + Practice is this Saturday, February 28, from 4 to 7 and is open to the public. Everyone can celebrate Charles Gaines month.