On a recent Wednesday, dressed in an unassuming sports coat and jeans, the 71-year-old artist Charles Gaines sauntered through the sonorous galleries of the Hammer Museum, where his survey, "Charles Gaines: Gridwork 1974-1989," was being installed. As if beginning a lecture -- the New Jersey-raised, L.A.-based Gaines has also taught for many years, and is currently on staff at the California Institute of the Arts -- Gaines began by ruminating on his place in art history in relation to this exhibition, which originated at the Studio Museum in Harlem last year before traveling to Los Angeles. Talking with Gaines is like stepping into an accelerated college course without knowing what class exactly it is that you're in. Can the teacher be lecturing on systems and metaphors at the same time? What is this about identity and ideology? And how did we all of a sudden end up on art history and graphic design? "I'm in a generation after the original wave of conceptual art in the 1960s, although I never really thought much about calling myself a conceptual artist," he said. "It was a ubiquitous term in those days. I was schooled as a painter and was very disaffected by painting as a studio practice. It didn't seem to engage me."
That school was Rochester Institute of Technology, where Gaines was the first black MFA art student. There, while studying -- and ultimately being unfulfilled by -- abstract painting, Gaines was given two books: "The Life of Forms in Art" by Henri Focillon and "Tantra Art: Its Philosophy & Physics" by Ajit Mookerjee. "What I discovered in those books is that there's a whole area of practices where one's subjectivity was not involved in the production of a work of art," Gaines recalled. "If you substitute the idea of the voice with the formal language of painting, painting is the manifestation of one's subjectivity."
At the time, the Western notion of art as something genius and divinely inspired was privileged in the art world. Through these books, Gaines was able to peel himself away from this hegemonic way of thinking, and remove his identity -- as well as the spiritual element -- as much as possible from the art making process. The books outlined a solution to these issues: by creating art with systems, Gaines could set into motion art that was only superficially subjective. "I wanted to make work by using either something equivalent to a mathematical system, a mapping system, or a linguistic system," said Gaines. "If I could find a way of forming a system that then produces the art, that system will be a firewall between the work and my subjectivity."
Thus began Gaines's 25-year exploration into systems. He began with a simple system; the first series that Gaines produced is visible upon entering the gallery. (Fittingly laid out in the style of Gaines's desire for structure, the show is mostly chronological, and unfurls series by series.) He began with a triangle of numbers in a grid. Gaines added up the sum of the numbers in each column, and then wrote that number below the column. "Those numbers would give me a code to tell me how to start [the next piece]," he said. "Each column would tell me how long to make each row in the next drawing."
As the systems produced exponential drawings, Gaines realized out of this experiment that the procedure was producing parabolic shapes. "I like the metaphoric analogy into painting," he said with a sly grin. "Because if you turn the parabola on its end, it looks like a drip, and if you look at the system sequentially, it looks like cell mitosis."
Attaching this biological process as a metaphor to the work's aesthetic, Gaines turned his attention to an analogous system based on an organic form found in nature -- trees -- and applied the system to these figures. "Rather than the form being produced by a calculation, I used a tree form as the impetus for producing a sequence," he said. Gaines would create a version of the tree shape in a grid, assign a number to fill in the grids of the tree, and finally correspond a color. This process would be done in a triptych, with the final drawing showing each subsequent tree layered behind the first tree. He created a set of 26 of these triptychs, the alphabet being his limit (the 26th triptych would have 26 trees overlaid on top of each other).
The resulting form became a mass of colorful limbs filling out the grid, but his hypothesis that the entire grid would be filled out with the layers of trees was foiled by the branches. "I thought, when I went into this, was that at a certain point, I wouldn't be able to fill in any more squares, because they'd all be used up, but saw that, even when I got to the last one, that even though the number of available squares had been reduced, I could keep going for a long time," said Gaines.
Meanwhile, the works, though they were created by a strict set of rules, came out looking aesthetically pleasing, even to Gaines himself, though he did not claim any control over the finished product. "The forms were produced systematically, but nevertheless produced affect," he said. "If a system produces something beautiful, it's not because a mysterious communication between my subjectivity and the subjectivity of the viewer. It's built into the system; if you want to give credit to something that produced [beauty], give credit to the system." Does Gaines himself think the images are beautiful? "Yeah, when I was making it, I thought, 'This is really nice,'" he said with a laugh.
That system would become the one that Gaines would work with for the next several decades, beginning with the employment of the same strategy to faces. "Which was instructive to me, because it deepened the issues around representation," he said. Another series was made from images of dancer Trisha Brown.
By 1989, Gaines had become more intrigued by the idea of using and investigating syntactical systems and linguistic constructs. But the idea that Gaines will always be cracking open systems of one type or another is an absolute. "My interest in these kinds of investigations is almost at a level of obsession," he said, referring to the decades of working within the same limitations. But, he says, the question was never why he continued with that system for so long. "It's like asking a painter, 'How come you painted for 25 years?' It's a tool. That's the way I looked at it."
But whatever you do, don't call the system his paintbrush. "Find another metaphor!" he said, laughing. "Or write 'Charles said, "Find another metaphor."'"
"Gridwork 1974-1989" is composed of 11 separate series and includes over 80 works, and is on view through May 24, 2015.