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For fifteen years, Charles Gaines lived his life on the grid. Between 1974 and 1989, Gaines employed the grid as a visual tool to explore the terrain of conceptual art and develop a system of representation purged of subjective expression. This period is also the focus of Charles Gaines: Gridwork, 1974-1989, an exhibition which traveled from the Studio Museum Harlem to the Hammer Museum in February, providing much-need- ed critical insight into these formative years in the artist’s career.
Most of the series in the exhibition begin with a set of three images that present a single object in three formats, reminiscent of other pioneering conceptual artworks of the time period-notably Joseph Kosuth’s One and Three Chairs (1965) and Martha Rosler’s The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems (1974-75). In Gaines’ Walnut Tree Orchard (1975- 2014), which opens the show, a photograph of a tree is displayed next to a line drawing of the same tree on hand-drawn graph paper. In the third image, the tree’s coordinates are meticulously plotted, numbers spreading out in ascending order from a central axis to suggest an underlying symmetry intrinsic in all organic life forms.
This first trio then expands into a matrix of seemingly endless combinatory possibilities: in the next three images below, a second tree is photographed, plotted, and overlaid with the first tree. The second tree is visible through the voids between the branches and leaves of the first, its numbers demarcated in a different color. The series represents 27 trees documented in this format (in a total of 81 panels), so that in the series’ final image 27 trees overlap in an autumnal explosion of color, forming a palimpsest that collapses space and time into a single gridded frame. Through the methodical sedimentation of his plots, Gaines acknowledges the inability of pictorial and linguistic systems to render subjects totally comprehensible. His grids obfuscate rather than clarify their subjects.
The grid dominates throughout the exhibition (including its title), and its presence begins to exhaust. Recognizable subjects— trees, flowers, human faces—appear all over the gallery walls only to disappear under the weight of their successive plots. Rosalind Krauss has observed that as a modernist trope, “the grid announces, among other things, modern art’s will to silence, its hostility to literature, to narrative, to discourse.”1 Although representational, Gaines’s grids silence individual narratives in favor of an objectively reproducible sys- tern, signaling what Roland Barthes called “the death of the author” (or artist) and the subsequent “birth of the reader” (or viewer). Gaines allows viewers to interpret the images for themselves, unmediated by his subjective expression.2
In Faces (1978), on display in the exhibition’s second gallery alongside the impressive Motion: Trisha Brown Dance (1980-81) series, this restoration of agency becomes politically charged in a move toward human subjects. Similar to Walnut Tree Orchard, the collection of overlapping and colorblind facial contours—friends and relatives of the artist—resists the typological ethnological categorization historically used to justify racist criminological and colonialist enterprise. In this regard, the work also questions the presumed objectivity of photographs, linking Gaines with his “Pictures generation” cohorts, such as Sherrie Levine and Louise Lawler. The coordinate plots are themselves insufficient: flattening heterogeneous subjects into a numerical code and layering them until they become unrecognizable. Gaines codes the face, but the face cannot be reassembled from the code. The material logic of the grid falsely promises the viewer an accurate portrait of the subject imprisoned within the austere and silencing aesthetic plane of modern- ism. Race falls prey to the grid’s dissecting logic.
The poetic power of Gaines’s work-which is often mischaracterized as a coldly minimalistic conceptualism-is the grid’s violent tendency to rupture the identity of the subject, rather than to portray it objectively. Each set of coordinates attempt yet ultimately fail to identify the subjects they code, challenging the common poststructuralist refrain that “everything is discourse” by rendering such discourse illegible.
Gaines has called marginality “a complex co-presence of textual spaces,” resisting coherent representation. “It almost begs a simpler form, a diagram perhaps, that will give shape to an impossibly complex machine, a coding that will make the difficult choices for us, to relieve us of the annoying spectacle of its insurmountability.”3 Gaines transforms himself into such a machine to depict the futility of such an enterprise. The resulting work in the exhibition can seem Sisyphean, relentlessly repetitive, and even pointless. But this sense of pointlessness is intentional, reflecting the hard truth that no diagrammatic sys- tern in language or art can code the lived complexities of marginalization.
This review was originally published in Carla issue 1.