New York

Charles Gaines, Regression: Drawing #4, Group #2, 1973–74, mechanical pen on paper, 24 3/4 × 30 3/4". From the series “Regression,” 1973–74.

Charles Gaines, Regression: Drawing #4, Group #2, 1973–74, mechanical pen on paper, 24 3/4 × 30 3/4". From the series “Regression,” 1973–74.

Charles Gaines

Charles Gaines, Regression: Drawing #4, Group #2, 1973–74, mechanical pen on paper, 24 3/4 × 30 3/4". From the series “Regression,” 1973–74.

As became evident in “Charles Gaines: Gridwork 1974–1989,” a dense yet elegantly presented exhibition curated by Naima J. Keith, the artist’s early works employ rules to systematically manipulate forms in such a way that the underlying systems cannot be inferred from their appearance. Suggesting the influence of both John Cage and Sol LeWitt, the series “Regression,” 1973–74, for example, features permutations of a roughly triangular abstract form that have been marked out in numbered squares on gridded paper; mathematically derived from an unidentified “specific formula,” the shape morphs from sheet to sheet according to criteria that I can’t succeed in reconstructing. There is some basic information that is retained through the transformations from state to state, but while its presence can be intuited, its nature cannot be easily comprehended by the viewer (though I wonder whether a mathematical savant might be able to decipher the pattern).

Starting with the series “Walnut Tree Orchard,” 1975–2014, Gaines began using photographs rather than mathematical formulas as his starting point. For each triptych in the series, he juxtaposes the photograph of a bare tree with a line drawing of it on gridded paper and a drawing that superimposes the outlines of all the trees graphed in the series thus far, but now in the form of numbered squares rather than lines. The series “Faces,” 1978–79, is constructed similarly: a close-up portrait photograph, a drawing of the same face, but this time in negative (the lines are made of empty, unnumbered squares amid numbered squares that represent the background), and a second graph of the overlapping features of the faces included in the series up to that point—a deindividualized, collective face.

“The way you look has a physical impact on how you live your life,” Gaines says, “but it results from a chance coming together of certain genetic properties.” One way his work may be understood is as an immense, long, deliberate disordering of appearances. And this is what sets Gaines apart from other Conceptual artists of his time as well as from his successors. When Joseph Kosuth juxtaposed a chair with its photograph on the one hand and the dictionary definition of the word chair on the other, he was broaching, in a new way, the ancient Platonic question of the representation of an idea; Gaines’s triptychs, as in the “Walnut Tree Orchard” and “Faces” series, are not analyzing the idea of “idea” but deconstructing appearances. Genetic information, interacting with life events only partially conditioned by that information, is responsible for the particular lineaments of the tree or the face we see in the photograph. But when this information is retranslated into a different medium, the image is abstracted yet made more complex, more difficult to parse, generating ambiguity and uncertainty rather than clarity. To the extent that one of Gaines’s triptychs constitutes a sequence or progression, it is a progression from (potentially biased) knowledge to (potentially liberating) unknowing. The face becomes unrecognizable, though it is always perceivable as a face. Yet unlike later artists such as Rodney Graham or Thomas Ruff (whose photographs, of trees and faces, respectively, are to some extent anticipated by Gaines’s), he does not use conventions of representation to enclose his subjects within a typology; within the icon of individuality, he discovers traces of other possible formations of identity.

This is probably where the tacit aspect of Gaines’s work enters the picture: its aesthetic. Despite his use of numbers, systems, and so on, his is not what Benjamin H. D. Buchloh has called an “aesthetic of administration”—the immense delicacy of touch that is evident everywhere makes that impossible. Gaines may be an artist of ideas, but what makes the ideas compelling as art is the evident devotion with which they are, quite literally, drawn out. Thought, in its material inscription, moves from generalization to individuality.

Barry Schwabsky