Emily LaBarge on Charles Gaines
generous is not typically a word associated with conceptual art, but this is precisely how I would describe Charles Gaines’ work: critically, provocatively, radical, at times paradoxical, but never docile, generous. “The subjective imagination is an ideology, it is not a fact,” said the artist. He also observed that the universal categories and paradigms, including “the creator”, in which we find ourselves inscribed are both constructed and arbitrary. In Gaines’ work, the questioning of systems and structures is necessarily turned inward and outward at the same time: relational, generative. “I want to reposition our idea of fatherhood so that whatever the artist does, the value given to it is discursively determined, not aesthetically determined,” Gaines explains. “The public as a social agent, the cultural agent, is important to this end. “
Two new series from old themes were presented 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 and is mounted behind a grid acrylic sheet on which are painted, according to the artist’s meticulous system, tiny numbered colored squares reminiscent of chromatic pixels. Each individual is assigned two colors: a darker one for the contours and basic features of the face, a lighter one for the intermediate surfaces. The series begins with Face # 1, Nour Mobarak (Levantine / White European), 2019, underlined in pink red and filled with sky blue, each numbered square rising horizontally back and forth from a vertical spine of zeros in the center of the face. The photograph below 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 below so that a composite slowly builds up, moving and transforming with each iteration. . Colors and features blend, overlap and change, depending on who has joined the choir.
In “Numbers and Trees: London Series 1”, 2020-2021, Gaines uses a similar approach. Details of the trees – the sprawling branches of a selection of varieties native to Dorset, UK – are squared with images of the entire tree in one color and numbered the same way as in “Numbers and Faces “. With each repetition and each additional tree and of a different shade, the central image spreads like a Rorschach spot of arterial veins and capillaries. Trees and faces may seem strange bedfellows, but Gaines frames and crops them, dismantles their imaginations, and poses and overlays numbers and colors, shapes and grids. The themes of biological reproduction, heredity, genealogy, lineage and genetics only appear to recede and dissolve entirely.
Can we read a face? (Open like a book? Closed like a door?) How to represent, conceptually, the recognition of race as a conceptual schema? “Can I come back as a bird?” Gaines remembers asking his mother when he was a child. His question revealed an early and fantastic recognition that the taxonomies that determine identity and all that goes with 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 his own. He asks us to see in the composite the collective – no white without black, no man without woman, no rich without poor, no me without you – and to find a way to perceive, to do and to live some share between the two.