Charles Gaines wants to challenge how you see the world
The pioneering artist discusses his new virtual exhibition at Hauser & Wirth, and how his work is a protest against the limitations placed on Black artists
By Aaron Mills All images courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth Sunday 27 September, 2020 Long read
Numbers And Trees: Palm Canyon, Palm Series 3 – his latest exhibition at Hauser & Wirth – evolves the complex system employed in his previous series Palm Trees And Other Works through 10 Plexiglass gridworks. Beginning as photographs of palm trees in Palm Desert, each piece builds on the last and informs the next, establishing a process whereby his mathematical system perfunctorily produces the image. Gaines makes successive modifications to scale, colour and background, evidencing his theory that while ‘the system has never changed, the outcome is always different’.
When Gaines began his abstract systems-based work in the 1970s, it was considered radical by many, because it challenged the expectations placed on Black artists at the time. He recalls he was often told that ‘Black artists don’t make art that way’, but that their work should investigate cultural identity and identity politics. He explains, ‘When whites deal with their subjectivity, they see it as normative and universal, not as a reflection on their race. This expectation of universality was problematic to Black artists who dealt with abstract ideas, because the expectation was that they would deal with cultural ideas – abstraction was incapable of expressing the lived experience of the Black artist.’
This is evident in a pivotal change very early in his career, when he shifted from being a painter to employing various systems. When I ask what inspired him to do so, he chooses his words carefully. ‘I generally don’t use the word inspiration. I prefer invention, because my work takes a problem/ solution approach. In the 1970s, I wanted to address the problems in perception, knowing that there is a difference between the object in the world and the way that object is perceived.’
Decades on, Gaines believes that the expectations placed on Black artists are not limiting as they once were. ‘Today, I feel no such restrictions or expectations.’ Likely, that is, because artists like himself paved the way.
Numbers And Trees: Palm Canyon, Palm Series 3 is available on the Hauser & Wirth website now