Charles Gaines’ drawings from the 1970s and 1980s are not for the faint of heart.
Encountering all those big sheets of graph paper filled in with row upon row of tiny little numbers and Latin alphabet letters has the immediate appeal of undergoing an IRS audit or perhaps reading through digital program code.
Do not despair. Plunge in. Things will soon, well, begin to add up.
And more. At the UCLA Hammer Museum, “Charles Gaines: Gridwork 1974-1989" lays out the artist’s intensive deep-dive into rule-based systems, taking a viewer to unexpected places.
Perhaps the most unexpected place is straight into the lap of Piet Mondrian.
The Dutch master made the vertical and horizontal intersections of a grid the organizing template for modern life. Gaines’ “Walnut Tree Orchard,” a series of drawings begun in 1975, unravels him.
The “Walnut” series begins with black-and-white landscape photographs, each centered on a single, barren tree. Walnut trees are deciduous, often standing alone in the landscape given that its leaves and root systems are inhospitable to other plant life. Gaines’ pictures look toward winter’s chill.
Yet, however autumnal, these desolate trees are quickly drained of whatever emotional reference a landscape picture might carry.
Each photograph is juxtaposed with a pair of gridded drawings, which look at first as if they might have been issued on an old, clickety-clack dot-matrix printer or an IBM Selectric typewriter. The tree’s organic shape is plotted on graph paper, with rows of numbers mapping shape and, apparently, tonality and spatial relationships between one branch and the next.
The two drawings differ. The first plots the photographic image directly. It translates one specific type of picture (a photograph) into another specific type of picture (a chart).
The second drawing plots what we could identify as “a tree” — quotation marks added — meaning tree as a generic type. Without a specific referent, it’s a graphic representation of a mental image that comes to mind when we think tree.
Gaines’ triptychs are an art of radical depersonalization. A second-generation conceptual artist, he expands an emerging form.
Think of Ed Ruscha’s 1965 photographs of bland L.A. apartment facades and his 1967 aerial views of elaborate parking lots — crisply organized structures for contemporary living. Their eccentricity does not reside in the content of who lives inside or parks the car but in the flat-out strangeness of a typology we take for granted. By the reigning standards of the 1960s, the photographs are “artless,” as Ruscha himself has said.
Or recall Joseph Kosuth’s 1965 “One and Three Chairs,” in which the artist juxtaposes an empty chair, a photograph of that chair and a dictionary definition of that (and every other) chair. Object, image, text — the particularity of the chair’s missing sitter, which is the subject on which traditional art might focus, is wholly absent from these three different orders of reality.
Even Van Gogh’s two famous paintings of empty chairs are personalized and profoundly layered symbols. One — sunny yellow, vibrant and standing alone — is Vincent’s surrogate; the other — brooding, somber and nocturnal — is Paul Gauguin’s.
And Mondrian? Gaines’ trees traipse back in time, pointing in the direction of radical art’s beginnings early in the 20th century. Between 1908 and 1920, Mondrian revolutionized abstract painting, starting with the depiction of a single tree. It got simplified and pared down, step by step.
First, it was an atmospheric and organic rendering of gracefully arched branches. Then it became an interconnected series of lines and arcs, locking physical object and dynamic space into a Cubist union, which soon gave way to a pattern of plus and minus marks. Next, it was clusters of colored squares and rectangles, and finally it was stripped down to a black and white grid, supporting the three primary colors.
At the century’s end, Gaines’ version of the process of radical depersonalization takes a whole new turn. Scanning the series is like watching the analog world give way to the emerging digital universe.
And scanning is how we read Gaines’ art. Imagination and intuition seep out of the systematic equation, even when he shifts to photographic portraits of people rather than trees or choreographer Trisha Brown dancing. The former resonate with Chuck Close’s gridded portrait paintings, the latter with Eadweard Muybridge’s late-19th century photographic motion studies.
The work is cerebral and austere, even when Gaines systemically adds vivid color painted on a Plexiglas overlay. That can make a viewer anxious — and sometimes even hostile, given the general public’s relative disdain (or simple disinterest) in wide swaths of conceptual art. Yet reconciling the anxiety can also be liberating.
Gaines has expressed his interest in Western interpretations of the esoteric philosophy of Tantric Buddhism, especially through the work of artist and composer John Cage (1912-1992). Buddhists seek equanimity, which tames the howling and rambunctious “monkey mind.”
Probably the biggest hero in Gaines’ lexicon is Sol LeWitt (1928-2007), whose wall drawings derive from a simple diagram or set of instructions to be followed in executing the works. (LeWitt was also inspired by Muybridge.) Another is Hanne Darboven (1941-2009), the German minimal and conceptual artist whose vast, ever-expanding grids of numbers, musical notations and writings sometimes also incorporate photographs.
Yet even though the images of trees, faces and dancers may be impersonal, no artist works without a personal motive. Gaines was born in Charleston, S.C., in 1944. An intense interest in the disquieting operations of arbitrary, rule-based systems makes a certain sense for an African American artist raised into the perversity of the Jim Crow South.
The show was organized by New York’s Studio Museum in Harlem. The 15-year time period that it covers ends with Gaines joining the faculty at CalArts, a school grounded in the now half-century old traditions of conceptual art. That makes sense too.