Los Angeles

Charles Gaines

ICA - Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles

In “Night/Crimes,” Charles Gaines presented eight noirish photo-and-text-based works that combine what looks like pages from an astronomy book with photos that resemble the ones Weegee managed to snap before police photographers arrived to document his city’s latest mayhem. Each piece consists of a large vertical rectangle encased in a thin black frame, recalling the way funeral announcements used to be surrounded by dark borders. The predominance of black and white in this show typified the exhibition’s central juxtaposition, evoking at once the conventions of fine-art display and the bleary, gray color scheme of detective-magazine spreads.

Gaines fills the lower two thirds of each rectangle with a large photo of a night sky—a black expanse dotted with pinpoints and splotches of planetary and star light. Placed above the lovely, calming view of this star-pricked firmament are smaller, terribly earthly photos of murder scenes, victims, and murderers culled from newspapers and police files. So each work juxtaposes a shot of a crime scene and a shot of a killer and then, dwarfing them both, a big chunk of night sky unfolding like a black blanket below them. Dividing the crime photos from the celestial view, as though it were the horizontal line between the two parts of a fraction, are a couple of sentences. The tiny writing gives the longitude and latitude of Los Angeles, and a date—presumably the site of the crime and the time it occurred. The name of a constellation that would have been visible when the murder took place along with its position in the sky is also provided, followed by a date exactly fifty years after the killing.

What has Gaines done here? Quite a lot, actually, without falling into the abyss of the maudlin or the preachy. Gently but firmly, these pieces shove you into a whirl of musings as endless and complicated as any star map. You stare at these pieces, squares of sky and faces of victims and life-enders, and piles of rumpled stained clothes and cops bending over bodies you can’t clearly see. Your thoughts start bumping into each other without excusing themselves. You wonder clumsily about fate, dying at the hands of another, helplessness, death and immortality. Suffering inflicted, absorbed, probed, reconstructed. You think about human attempts to make sense of the senseless—to investigate, quantify, or resolve those unthinkable aspects of our dark deeds and natures within our bright surroundings. You look at the pictures of the night sky in every piece and you remember the clouded landscape that normally appears over your head. Then you think about the horrors that “heaven” allows us to perform on one another daily as its configuration silently changes like some dumb planetarium show or mindless kaleidoscope. Astrology and other ancient belief systems built on the notion that studying the stars can help predict what will befall us cross your mind. Gaines has long shown an interest in logic and illogic, in what’s determined and what’s arbitrary. With an elegant austerity that’s eyegrabbing and unsettling, Gaines places a provocative dissonance at the core of this work which is not easily shrugged off.

Amy Gerstler