Clarity in every crisis

Special to The Times

CHARLES GAINES is drawn to disaster. In recent years, the Los Angeles-based artist has created works that explore our perceptions of crime scenes, explosions and airplane crashes. His latest installation, on view through Sept. 1 at LAXART in Culver City, tackles a familiar Southland catastrophe: smog.

“Greenhouse” is a microcosm of the city in an 8-by-12-foot wood and Plexiglas structure. A computer-controlled system of multicolored lights shines down on a satellite photo of the L.A. basin; each color represents a different airborne pollutant. If regional air pollution levels are low, the lights get brighter; if levels increase, they grow dim. Every 15 minutes, the computer receives data from a website that records local air quality and the structure fills with fog, diffusing the lights in a cloud of haze.

While the installation is a high-tech dramatization of environmental degradation, it is also part of Gaines’ ongoing investigation into how we comprehend all phenomena, not just moments of crisis. “My interest is not to necessarily be an agent in changing global warming,” he says. “Although I would love for that to happen, my interest is to produce a certain kind of understanding of the role that ideology can play in limiting your thinking.”


For Gaines, cataclysmic events strain our powers of comprehension. And by rendering us speechless, they show us the limits of our ability to make sense of the world. Gaines is interested in the gap between visceral experience and the words and theories we use to describe it.

One of his best-known works, 1997’s “Airplanecrash Clock,” depicts a catastrophe on a small scale. Hoisted above a model of a fictional metropolis (a mishmash of iconic buildings from different cities), a toy airplane on the end of a long pole descends at regular intervals into a trap door in the street. After each “crash,” we hear screams, and the door flips over to reveal the plane’s wreckage. The work turns tragedy into a repetitive, mechanical event, much like the repeated media footage of planes crashing into the World Trade Center towers on Sept. 11, 2001.

“The piece was done before 9/11, but it felt eerily prescient.” says Shelly Bancroft, co-director of New York art center Triple Candie, where Gaines had a retrospective in 2004. By calling attention to the ways in which disasters are represented, Gaines asserts that our understanding of events is always a particular construction of language and images rather than objective truth.

Diligence free of doubt

AT 63, Gaines, who has been a faculty member at CalArts since 1989, is soft-spoken and dignified, exuding a confidence that reflects the determination with which he has pursued his artistic and intellectual interests. For more than 30 years, he has maintained an active exhibition and teaching career, even when his highly conceptual work wasn’t always in step with art world trends. “By the time that I got to know Charles, the type of work that he was making sort of lost its appeal,” says artist Edgar Arceneaux, a former student and collaborator of Gaines. “But he continued to make that work, and he continued to evolve.”

Now it seems the art world is paying attention again -- in June, Gaines was included for the first time in Italy’s Venice Biennale (on view through Nov. 21). His installation there includes “Airplanecrash Clock” as well as the latest iterations of two ongoing series of drawings, “Explosion Drawings” and “History of Stars.” The “Explosion Drawings” are highly detailed, large-scale graphite images of blasts resulting from bombs or crashes. Stripped of any sense of place or time, each drawing is accompanied by a smaller “appendix”: a separate image of hand-lettered, alternating sentences about bombs, missiles and war from two or three sources unrelated to the explosion portrayed.

“History of Stars” creates similar gaps between image and text by combining shots of the night sky with intermingled sentences from two books of personal significance to Gaines: Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s magical realist novel “Love in the Time of Cholera” and “Orientalism,” by post-colonial scholar Edward Said. In a 2006 statement, Gaines wrote, “By arbitrarily combining content and expression, I want to show that the truthfulness of any expression


This blend of conceptual approach and political investment was influenced by Gaines’ early experiences with racism in the art world of the ‘70s. “I had to fight my way into graduate school,” he recalls. Upon being rejected by the Rochester Institute of Technology in upstate New York, Gaines, who grew up in Newark, N.J., traveled to the school and made a personal appeal for admission. He was the first black student in the Institute’s master of fine arts program, from which he graduated in 1967.

“If you look at any black artist who’s that educated, who’s over 55 years old, you’re looking at a person who bucked the odds at getting an education in the arts, someone who had a higher wall to climb, no question, because it was so racist in those days,” he says.

Failing to find a mentor in graduate school, he developed his conceptual approach to art-making largely through reading, including texts on Tantric Buddhist art. Some of his early drawings involved representing natural phenomena such as trees or the movement of dancers as grids of numbers.

Gaines says that while his practice evolved independently of mainstream conceptual art, it was Sol Lewitt, a prominent figure in the movement, who first championed his work. Despite living outside major art centers (he taught at Cal State Fresno from 1968 to 1989), he showed extensively, most notably with New York dealer Leo Castelli, who also represented Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg.

Gaines describes this early attention as a double-edged sword. Although he has always maintained that his work is politically motivated, it wasn’t always recognized as such. For African American artists who gained mainstream visibility in the ‘80s, “political art” was narrowly defined as work that dealt explicitly with issues of race and identity. While Gaines was acutely aware of the challenges facing black artists, he refused to relinquish his interest in theoretical structures simply to follow trends.

“The reason I was shown was because my work looked more like what was going on in conceptual practice than it did political art, which the art world just wouldn’t permit at that time,” he says, “At the very same time, because I wasn’t doing that kind of political work, it limited the growth of my career.”


In the ‘80s and ‘90s, when the art world embraced younger African American artists such as Lorna Simpson and Fred Wilson who explicitly critiqued racism, Gaines was left out of the mix. “I haven’t been engaging in the subject of race and racial identity. That’s been the stereotype of African American production, and I really never did that,” he says.

As Gaines sees it, he falls between two generations: arriving on the scene just after the heady early days of conceptual art but in advance of a younger group of artists who wore their politics on their sleeves.

Now that the art world has entered what Studio Museum in Harlem curator Thelma Golden has dubbed a “post-black” moment, Gaines’ blend of theory and politics is closer to his students’ attitudes toward race than the views of his own generation. “Race became less an issue of racism,” he wrote in an e-mail, “and more an issue of how power is exercised.”

Above the racial divide

GAINES’ interest in these power dynamics spurred him to write his own critical texts. In 1993, he organized an exhibition at UC Irvine that examined work by contemporary African American artists and its reception in the mainstream press. Titled “Theater of Refusal: Black Art and Mainstream Criticism,” his catalog essay identified a paradox facing African American artists.

Although they received increased media attention in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, it was often only as African Americans that their work was evaluated. “By talking about the work of minority artists, you’re already separating them from everybody else,” Gaines says. “And then in the way that you talk about them, you try to reinforce the reasons for their separation. Even if you are the most liberal and well-intentioned person in the world, you’re still participating in marginalizing those artists.”

These insights, along with the longevity of his career and the singularity of his artistic vision, have made Gaines a role model for a new generation of artists and curators who came of age in the ‘90s. “For many years it felt like he was this figure that you have to reckon with,” says Franklin Sirmans, curator of modern and contemporary art at the Menil Collection in Houston who has written about Gaines. “I think he shows a path. If you look at the work, it gives you an idea of strategy, of what one artist can do.”


At CalArts, Gaines typically structures his classes as open-ended seminars. “I try to set things so that my students are more like researchers than students,” he says. He develops and refines many of the ideas for his artwork and writing in the classroom. “I identified with something [artist and UCLA professor] John Baldessari said many years ago, that there’s a certain kind of studio practice where the teaching itself is part of it,” he says.

“I think for him it’s not just about making art,” says Sirmans. “It’s about the process, and it’s also about the interaction with artists, and I think that’s always been a really important thing for him.”

This engagement with the larger context of art-making underscores the egalitarian impulse embedded in Gaines’ art. “Any idea is a social idea,” Gaines says. “If language is the area where we receive thoughts, then it always means that you can’t have a thought without social impact.” Language may always reflect ideology, but in those traumatic moments when speech fails us, we catch a glimpse of how we are empowered to shape it too.