Los Angeles

Charles Gaines

Charles Gaines’s latest wall pieces combine photographs culled from various agencies’ archives of accident reports from Mount Rainier with textual accounts of the specific mishaps. Borrowing from Conceptual art, print journalism, and history painting, Gaines centered each of the five clusters of images and texts on view around a large black-and-white photo of the Washington mountain overlaid with white text telling fascinating, at times morbid tales of fate and folly, tragedy and survival: Absent Figures: Brigham Files (all works 2000), for instance, describes the miraculous survival of four climbers [from a team of six) who slid into a crevasse in part because of the recklessness of one member of the team, who managed to escape the crevasse but then met his end by sliding half a mile down the mountain. Around the central annotated images are smaller photographs and texts: a letter from a grateful relative, photos of victims in happier days, a page from a climbing manual musing about fate. In the center of the room, Falling Rock, a tall sculpture like a grandfather clock, periodically let a massive stone on a cable drop to within inches of a sheet of glass in the bottom of the case; controlled by a computer probability program, the rock on occasion fell far enough to smash the glass, amplifying the sense of urgency and danger central to the climbers’ stories.

The tragic and heroic aspects of the tales add a certain punch to the process of connecting the dots in Gaines’s pieces, but the real issue seems less the specifics of the incidents than how those specifics get linked. One assumes any number of connections between the images and texts: That must be where it happened; she must be the mother of a dead hiker; and so on. But the more one weaves the information together, the more questions come to mind: How does one know that the hikers in a photo are the group that had the accident? Why does each cluster of images include a picture of flowers—is the connection geographical or seasonal, symbolic or arbitrary? What at first appeared to be a fully told tale begins to reveal itself as full of holes: what seemed like the all too easy task of reading the information and getting the story straight becomes a slightly nerve-racking search for answers, not unlike the searches in Gaines’s stories, from the expeditions to the rescue efforts to the accident reports. This task is complicated by the difficulty of reading the white text as it fades in and out of the black-and-white images, which results in a kind of snow blindness.

Gaines’s once-fashionable format (neatly framed, tightly packaged presentations of images, texts, and data) has lately been all but absent from the LA art scene. For the most part, its disappearance is celebrated, as it too often made for overly academic or tediously self-righteous art, but Gaines uses the format devotedly and well. His commingling of images and text abjures foregone conclusions in favor of less tidy disseminations, and in so doing, it trades a quick read and a brief impact for a more sustained ripple in one’s consciousness.

Christopher Miles