Charles Gaines wants to challenge how you see the world

A close up portrait of a man's face in black and white

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

Systematic, philosophical and captivating, the work of Charles Gaines has been challenging our perceptions of art and identity for more than five decades. He is a conceptual artist, a musician, a writer and a teacher, producing multifaceted work that lies somewhere at the crossroads of sculpture, photography, painting and conceptual art – while pushing the boundaries of all of the above. 

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’.
A colourful piece of art
A colourful piece of art
Conceived and executed entirely in isolation, this pandemic-friendly virtual exhibition is being experienced completely digitally. ‘Even before COVID-19 changed the way we experience an exhibition, the digital format was fast becoming a common way to experience works,’ says Gaines. ‘In my case, it complements the work because the work itself is a reflection of digital representation.’

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.’
Art on the walls at an art gallery
Born in Charleston, South Carolina in 1944, Gaines was encouraged by his teachers to pursue art from an early age. Spending most of his formative years in Newark, New Jersey after his family moved there in 1947, he studied at an art magnet in high school. He also took drum lessons from renowned jazz musician Jimmy Smith. Gaines then went on to major in art at Jersey City State College, where he discovered Focillon’s The Life Of Forms In Art, investigating morphology in art and the problems with style. Later, he would discover the work of John Cage, whose theoretical foundations led Gaines to search for new ways of thinking about art as a practice. 

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.’
A colourful piece of art
A colourful piece of art
These issues with perception are rooted in subjectivity. When discussing this, Gaines professes, ‘A work of art cannot help but be a reflection of one’s lived experience. With White people, this was never a cultural or racial matter, because for them the lived experience simply meant being in touch with their subjectivity. For Blacks, any subjective expression of experience was cultural and/ or political, a reflection on their racial identity.’  This is partly because of the tropes of Blackness. ‘If a Black artist similarly expressed from [their] subjectivity, this was read as a reflection only on their community, presumably because there would be certain images that troped this community, such as the Black body. A White body is seen as a universal form, but the black body is seen politically and culturally.’

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
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