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Issue 006 Fall/Winter 2023 Profiles

The Logics of Systems, According to Charles Gaines

For nearly 50 years now, the conceptual artist has been pulling a thread—employing the very systems that undergird inequality to reveal their dysfunction.

By Danielle A. Jackson
Photography by Texas Isaiah

October 10, 2023

Charles Gaines in his studio, 2023, photo by Texas Isaiah.

Charles Gaines is preoccupied with a childhood memory—a tale so loaded with foreshadowing of the artist’s instincts that it is less a memory than a fable, less an anecdote than an origin story.

It begins with a very young Gaines walking down a dirt road—lined with small shacks and cackling farm animals—near his grandmother’s home in Charleston, South Carolina. Even at around five years of age, Gaines would ponder, with the wisdom only children seem to possess, the unanswerable: Why is a pig a pig? Or, dismissing the egg entirely, which was of no concern to him: Why is a chicken a chicken? One day, he brought this line of inquiry to his mother as they walked along the earthen path. He stared up at the birds singing in the surrounding trees and shouted, “Mom, why is that bird a bird?” She replied with a chuckle, “I don’t know, honey. It’s a bird!” He paused for a second, as if in deep thought, then responded, “Do you think when I die I’ll come back as a bird?”

Gaines views this recollection as an attempt to reckon with his confusion around why Black people are treated differently: Why is racial meaning arbitrarily assigned? Who assigns the meaning? Who has the power? As he walked on unpaved roads and encountered twittering birds, Gaines’s existential and metaphysical questioning began to take root, priming him to expand this line of thought begun in his grandmother’s neighborhood and use it as a lens to view the entire world and its systems: social, cultural, political, economic, and linguistic. 

On a bright, sunny day this past spring, I spoke with Gaines about his artistic process, philosophies, and life experiences. He was preparing for his large-scale retrospective at Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami, Charles Gaines: 1991‒2023, a sequel of sorts to his 2014 retrospective Charles Gaines: Gridwork 1974–1989, which took place at the Studio Museum in Harlem. Under changing skies, we traveled from New York’s Meatpacking District to Gaines’s large-scale kinetic sculpture, Moving Chains (2022), located on Governors Island. A counter-monument that, to many, evokes the hull of a slave ship, Moving Chains, comprises nine 1,600-pound steel chains that grind slowly overhead as visitors walk through a linear passageway constructed out of a reddish-brown hardwood called sapele. 

Charles Gaines, 2023, photo by Texas Isaiah.

I remember vividly a gust of wind driving down the corridor, pulling with it the woody scent from the drying timber. The weight and movement of the chains on the choker system above me produced a gripping sound to a cadence that was evocative of the pace of the currents in the New York harbor nearby. The center chain moved faster than the rest, echoing (to my ears, anyway) a vessel at sea. Gaines wanted to explore the creation of the United States economy, its relationship to the legitimization of slavery, and most importantly, the theological and structural patterns that underpin it. The logic of systems, revealing its dysfunction and inexactitudes, has long been a consideration in Gaines’s practice. He reflects

 “I got interested very early on in the ideas that established the social.  and  cultural rules that I had to live by, where those ideas came from, and who’s responsible, especially if they were unjust. Even at five years old, I was already problematized by the way power was distributed and marginalized whole communities. For whatever reason, I was growing into being an artist, and so these questions about the Jim Crow South shifted over to art. This way of thinking through and about ideology and language and so forth is what I call political.”

It’s no surprise that the artist would consider his own parameters and origins worthy of critical interpretation. After all, this self-critique is directly in line with Gaines’s “systems art”—most often the result of equations, outcomes of a set of fixed terms and conditions that propel a language of abstraction, even archaeology. His earliest “mature works”—collectively called Gridworks (1974–1989)were circuitous mathematical abstractions in which the artist added numbers in rows, and each used the results to generate the next drawing. Explaining his methodology, the artist outlines:

“I developed an algorithm or equation based on an X and Y axis, where X was multiplied by Y, and a series of numbers were added to the equation to produce drawings whose aggregate form answers that. For example, if 2 is on the X axis and 4 is on the Y axis, then 2 × 4 = 8, so I would create a drawing that was an answer to that equation (basically, counting out 8), and I’d do the same thing over and over again. I created these parabolic shapes and forms, but most importantly, it was the mathematical strategy that produced forms, not so much the equation that produced the forms.”

Charles Gaines, 2023, photo by Texas Isaiah.

While Gaines’s system might indeed sound abstract and mathematical in description alone, works such as Walnut Tree Orchard: Set N (1977), his first series to involve photography, make it clear that any of Gaines’s systems are inextricably tied to their input from the lived world, the abstract only as profound as the real itself. The three-part piece begins at left with a photograph of a barren walnut tree, flattened and frozen in time, taken with a medium-format camera and black-and-white film, in an orchard near Fresno State College. The next part of the work, always displayed in close proximity, is a finely drawn outline of the tree atop a hand-drawn grid, removing any context so as to focus on the intricate details of the branches and trunk. The final drawing, at right, represents the barren tree using numbers rather than lines to plot the tree’s shape, and further overlaying that with other trees rendered before it in the larger series. Indeed, the mathematical system at play is so tied to the world that, as Gaines describes it, it is based on the essential element of life itself, the cell:  

“The whole system analogizes cell representation. It had biological or organic imprints, and that led me to work with biological forms as a starting point. This is where photography came in, because I trust these forms in the world, and in doing that, I recognize the values of the tree shape and that a mathematical equation can produce a series of forms by replication. I can get that same idea of sequence by overlapping shapes, and this is where the colors come in. You can literally do a kind of archeological ‘reveal’ to see how the system is constructing the image and you can isolate the variables.”

The radicality of Gaines’s approach developed dramatically from the 1970s and through to the 1990s. While many artists of the time were making artworks that were directly representational in their depictions of Black life, Gaines moved toward his labor-intensive, rule-based practice that moved away from narration. As a result, many of his contemporaries thought he was making “white art,” because the work did not explicitly read as political or cultural. “With the exception of Jack Whitten and Sam Gilliam,” Gaines tells me, “everyone thought I was crazy!” 

Charles Gaines, 2023, photo by Texas Isaiah.

Lacking a community of interlocutors, Gaines began to study other ideological perspectives of art that did not center subjectivity and the modernist doctrines that he felt were being upheld in art discourse. It’s not that Gaines didn’t maintain an interest in representation; he wanted to show that representation is an intellectual process, not simply the re-creation of scenes based on personal feelings or opinions. He searched globally for alternative methods of creating and happened upon two publications that would prove critical to his development: Henri Focillon’s The Life of Forms in Art (1942) and Ajit Mookerjee’s Tantra Art (1966). The former looks at how art forms change over time to reflect political, economic, and social issues, and the latter discusses tantric philosophies and includes depictions of works by monks who made sculptures and drawings comprising geometric patterns based on their meditative practices. Replete with reproductions, Tantra Art describes the monks’ works as physical manifestations of “enlightened vision,” a philosophy released from the ego. Gaines also found commonalities between his own ideas and the language of conceptualism, particularly the work of Sol LeWitt, whose wall drawings and sculptures are the outcomes of systems.

This emphasis on the mechanics of bodily action extends to Gaines’s interest in music and emotion as an inner expression of the body, a sensation felt through the skin. Alongside his visual art career, Gaines is also a jazz percussionist with knowledge of music theory. His series Manifestos (2008–) translates language into notes, transforming the written text of political documents into musical scores that are performed and recorded by ensembles. To create the Manifestos, Gaines translates each letter of the texts into a corresponding musical note, specifically C, D, E, F, G, A, or B. The installations that constitute this series investigate how the emotive properties of piano composition affect viewers’ interpretation of the text at hand. 

Manifestos extends a strategy and calculation that date back to Gaines’s Language series, the first of which were the Night/Crimes (1994) works, which juxtapose photographs of astrological constellations and other archival materials related to violent crimes. Imagine standing in front of a serene artwork depicting a night sky—a densely black surface with splotches that imply star and planetary light—above which is, say, a photo of a murder scene or a mugshot of a convicted person gathered from a police file. A longitude and latitude written above each night sky represent the location of its corresponding crimes. Here again, Gaines is employing his familiar strategy of bringing two or more seemingly autonomous things together to think through how the words and images we read on a page or in space provoke emotion. He is arguing that we can cognitively make sense of certain events—whether those events are related to the history of enslavement or violence or personal memory—by conjuring links to different realms entirely. 

Charles Gaines's studio, 2023, photo by Texas Isaiah.

The music and text of Manifestos pose the question: what role does emotion—passion, joy, contempt, and beyond—play in an individual’s interpretation of political speech? The work is an attempt to think through text on a syntactic level, but also to link rules relating to the distribution of sound in music and the distribution of sound in language:

I wanted to say that emotion is the driving force of political speech. Rhetoric can be used strategically, but as in poetry, you can use it to introduce certain kinds of feelings and language. I wanted to dig deeper and say it’s attached convincingly not to the speaker but to the relationships that the hearers come up with. I tried to create a situation where one can consider, in this case, writing how you attach emotion to the words. We know that these emotions come from an arbitrary system, yet they can be quite convincing.

It is the strength of such arbitrary systems that Gaines has been pondering since those early childhood walks in South Carolina during which he encountered squawking hens, chirping birds in trees, and grunting pigs. Transmutation, for Gaines, has always been a philosophical probing, a way to change the game—to break free from the fetters of segregationist theory, from labels, from any arbitrary system. Systems, with their structures to uphold and stringent rules to follow, are a kind of holy trinity that binds Gaines’s practice as tightly as a constrictor knot. His work echoes the lived world yet uses abstraction and logic symphonically to dissolve difference. He exploits these excavating tools to political and poetic ends.