Charles Gaines, Face #16, Naoki Sutter-Shudo (Japanese/French/Swiss German), 2020, acrylic paint, acrylic sheet, ink-jet print, 66 1⁄2 × 55 1⁄4 × 8". From “Numbers and Faces: Multi-Racial/Ethnic Combinations Series 1,” 2019–20.

Charles Gaines, Face #16, Naoki Sutter-Shudo (Japanese/French/Swiss German), 2020, acrylic paint, acrylic sheet, ink-jet print, 66 1⁄2 × 55 1⁄4 × 8". From “Numbers and Faces: Multi-Racial/Ethnic Combinations Series 1,” 2019–20.

Charles Gaines

Generous is not typically a word associated with Conceptual art, but it’s precisely how I would describe the work of Charles Gaines: critically, provocatively, radically, sometimes paradoxically, but never submissively, generous. “The subjective imagination is an ideology, it’s not a fact,” the artist has said. He has also observed that the categories and universal paradigms, including “the creator,” in which we find ourselves inscribed are both constructed and arbitrary. In Gaines’s work, the challenge to systems and structures is necessarily inward- and outward-looking at once: The eradication of authorship and subjectivity contests the myth of individual genius and expression, but it also makes space for modes of exchange that might be communal, relational, generative. “I want to reposition our idea of authorship so that whatever it is that the artist does, the value given to it is discursively determined, not aesthetically determined,” says Gaines. “The audience as a social agent, the cultural agent, is important for that purpose.”

Two new series that emerge from old themes were on display in “Multiples of Nature, Trees and Faces,” the artist’s first solo exhibition in London. “Numbers and Faces: Multi-Racial/Ethnic Combinations Series 1,” 2019–20, consists of sixteen large-scale black-and-white photographs of people who identify as multiracial or multiethnic. Each portrait shows its subject from the shoulders up and is mounted behind a gridded acrylic sheet on which are painted, according to the artist’s meticulous system, tiny numbered squares of color recalling chromatic pixels. Each individual is assigned two colors: a darker one for the basic contours and features of the face, a lighter one for the surfaces in between. The series begins with Face #1, Nour Mobarak (Levantine/White European), 2019, outlined in rose red and filled in with sky blue, each numbered square ascending horizontally in both directions from a vertical spine of zeros at the center of the face. The photograph beneath is just discernible through the squares. With each progressive work in the series, a new face is added—a new black-and-white photograph, a new grid of new colors—but the previous faces remain visible underneath so that a composite slowly builds, shifting and morphing with each iteration. Colors and features mix, overlap, and change, depending on who has joined the chorus.

In “Numbers and Trees: London Series 1,” 2020–21, Gaines employs a similar approach. Details of trees—the sprawling branches of a selection of varieties native to Dorset, UK—are gridded over with images of the entire tree in one color and numbered in the same manner as is used in “Numbers and Faces.” With each repetition and each additional and differently hued tree, the central image spreads like a Rorschach blot of arterial veins and capillaries. Trees and faces might seem like strange bedfellows, but Gaines frames and reframes them, dismantles their imagoes, and lays and overlays numbers and colors, shapes and grids. Themes of biological reproduction, heredity, genealogy, lineage, and genetics emerge only to recede and dissolve entirely.

Can we read a face? (Open like a book? Closed like a door?) How do we represent, conceptually, the recognition of race as a conceptual schema? “Can I come back as a bird?” Gaines recalls asking his mother as a child. His question revealed an early and fantastical recog-nition that the taxonomies that determine identity and everything that accompanies it—racially, socially, culturally, politically, economically—are not facts of nature. If Gaines empties his work of subjectivity, he does so to allow the viewer to retain but also to question and demolish her own. He asks us to see in the composite the collective—no white without black, no male without female, no rich without poor, no me without you—and to find a way to perceive, make, and live somewhere in between.