Charles Gaines

The Studio Museum in Harlem
144 West 125th Street
July 17, 2014–October 26, 2014

Charles Gaines, Motion: Trisha Brown Dance, Set #11 (detail), 1980–81, color photographs and ink on Strathmore paper, 11 19 1/2".

Including several series which have never before been on public display, “Charles Gaines: Gridwork 1979–1989” takes a rare glimpse into the early work of the Los Angeles–based artist’s forty-year career. The exhibition fills a crucial gap in understanding his development: In the formative years of Conceptualism, Gaines—a longtime colleague of Sol Lewitt—created a complex, rule-based approach to his two-dimensional gridwork, which consisted of numerical sequences in pencil or ink on large sheets of gridded paper. Those familiar with Gaines’s more recent work may be surprised by the lack of any visible mention of the politics behind this seeming painstakingly developed methodology, epitomized by the nonrepresentational numerical sequence “Regression,” 1973–74.

Gaines’s foundational interest in systems-based abstraction as an implicit ideological critique over explicit political sentiment is showcased through these early works. In each work in his twenty-six part series “Walnut Tree Orchard,” 1975–2014, Gaines represents a barren walnut tree three ways: as a black-and-white photograph, a drawn outline of the tree, and a numerical sequence mapping the distance of the tree in relation to all the trees represented before it, in effect creating a numerical orchard. Here, impartial mathematical sequences provide an alternate logic for viewing the world. At the same time, the outline of the tree bears traces of the artist’s hand, which lends a touch of the spontaneous in an otherwise orderly mathematical formality. Finally, the mapped tree orchard is indicative of Gaines’s stake in both duration and the effect of time on perception. His commitment to revealing systems of representation is repeated in other series—including portraiture in “Faces,” 1978, and the human body in “Motion: Trisha Brown Dance,” 1981—each deploying systems that skirt politics to land on identity.

— Chelsea Haines