Published  10/08/2015

Charles Gaines: ‘I am dealing in the area of how meaning is formed’

Charles Gaines: ‘I am dealing in the area of how meaning is formed’

US conceptual artist and educator Charles Gaines talks about why he believes art should be interested in knowledge ahead of pleasure, being influenced by Charlie Parker and John Coltrane, and why he contests his students rather than nurturing them


Charles Gaines is a conceptual artist living and working in Los Angeles, California. Born in 1944 in Charleston, South Carolina, he uses text, grids, images and musical scores to create conceptual works that interrogate many common, yet arbitrary systems of meaning. Gaines’s works often pair delicately laid-out grids with black-and-white, still-life images. The grids detail light and colour values from the images and create a reframed image through numbers and symbols. His most recent work involves coding and systematising musical scores to create new meanings and visual representational notations.

A Will Brown: In 2013, I curated an exhibition called Cinematic Moments at the Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts from works in the Kadist Art Foundation’s collection. Your work, Shadows V from 1980, was one of the focal points of the exhibition. When did you start making these elegant gridworks?

Charles Gaines: My first work using numbers and grids (Regression series) was in 1973-74. The first work using photography along with number systems – Walnut Tree Orchard – was in 1974.

AWB: How did you come to start using this method of coding patterns with numbers, values, shades and symbols?

CG: It was after seeing tantric Buddhist drawings that map the cosmos, and the work of Hanne Darboven, which I saw in New York in 1973. Darboven gave me the idea to work in series; tantra, the idea of systems and grids.

AWB: How has your relationship to your materials changed over the years? You seem to weave seamlessly between using black and white and colours, and from one to as many as 10 frames or repeating motifs, or variations on one image in one composition.

CG: My early work involved systems that plotted shapes of plants and human forms over a series. Post-1989, I started to work with photography and language (text). I left the systems to work with the conflation of unrelated things through images.

AWB: What are the distinctions for you between your mediums and materials: a photograph, a print and a work on paper, or ink v pencil?

CG: There are none. The idea determines the material. I worked exclusively with ink until the 2000s when I began to work with pencil. I am comfortable with thinking about my work as a drawing practice.

AWB: What is it about music that you find so interesting that you come back to it in your work time and again? I’m sure you are familiar with John Cage’s scores; how does your work relate or differentiate itself in your mind?

CG: I began to show professionally in 1973. I never used music in my work, either as a subject or a process, until I produced Manifestos in 2008. Since then, I have produced two more works that employ music, Manifestos 2, first shown in 2013, and Sound Text, which is being exhibited at this year’s Venice Biennale. Before the Manifestos series, I never found a way to incorporate my musical interests, either in practice or critically. With Manifestos, I discovered that there was a correlative possibility between systems – which was central to my early work and continues to be central – and music theory. In the early work, I could work with ideas of arbitrary and random relationships within a rigorous system, as the system applies the terms for mapping together different things, or categories of the same thing. The system, in this work, served as the organisational strategy to form relationships between different things without undermining their arbitrariness. Music theory also serves the same purpose, to organise according to its different things, not based on what those things mean, but on contiguous or analogous structural elements that they share.

In the early work, for example, I sequenced different trees. In the later work, I was able to use the structure of one source (text) to produce something different from it (music), but by employing the structural level of both, in other words, letters to notes, where each letter in a text is converted to musical notation. The sound (or music) this produced is a product of the analogy that exists between language and musical compositional theory. John Cage was important to me in realising Manifestos. The idea of using a system to produce music comes from Cage, but where I depart is that my process involves more minimalist strategies rather than the more surrealist interest in chance and the aleatory. I enjoyed how Cage was involved in the critique of the ego and subjectivity and used chance to articulate that critique by employing it as a productive strategy. Unlike Cage, I am uninterested in undermining the role of language and representation, and found that I could engage the notion of the arbitrary through language itself, and suggest by this that I am dealing in the area of how meaning is formed. This is different from Cage because he wanted to get away from language and the issue of meaning formation. My interests are more in alignment with the idea of improvisation, where chance and the random are factors, but not outside the area of meaning. So Charlie Parker and John Coltrane became important to me because of how improvisation is realised through a system of rules.

In this way, my Walnut Tree Orchard and Manifestos works are related. The role of the system, either mathematical or language-based, form the context where the indeterminate is experienced, but not at the expense of meaning because the system allows a space where unrelated things can be set in relations. The formation of meaning is critically dependent on this stage because it is here that one understands what happens first if anything can become meaningful. First, there is a correlation that is formed between the two different things, and meaning comes into being as explanations of this abstract correlation. For example, the letters A and B are arbitrarily related but become meaningful, nevertheless, within the context of the alphabet, which is itself an arbitrary construction.

AWB: How do you determine the scale and number of frames or image motifs in each work?

CG: Again, it depends on the work. The length of the work, as well as its organisation, depend on the number-plotting system I use. The later work is not involved with mathematical systems or systemic seriation. Instead, it deals with linguistic systems and how they work in representation.

AWB: The subtleties in many of your works are tremendous and I find myself getting lost in the details yet never fully unaware of the larger composition. What is it about coding your works in this way that allows you so much flexibility?

CG: The use of chance in the system allows for greater variety because one cannot predict what will happen! Within a project based on the realisation of new ideas, I find chance more productive than intuition, where you are constrained by your tastes.

AWB: Your work has remained very consistent throughout your career. It’s rare for an artist to commit as fully as you have to exploring materials, concepts and objectivity. What do you think have been the most important developments for you in your work and career?

CG: Although the early work was the about the use of systems and numbers, and the later work uses photography and language, what is consistent is my interest in revealing the complex nature of representation and how it is dependent on social structures and not subjectivity. In other words, I was interested consistently in a critical and theoretical project, to debunk expressivity as the means to produce images, and to raise the importance of the social space in image production.

AWB: Can you elaborate on what you mean by the idea of social space in image production? What is important about this for you?

CG: What I mean by this is that, in the modernist idea of the expressive object, such as abstract painting, for example, an image is understood to be the object of an instance of expression. This suggests that the object is the product of an unconscious or intuitive state that is itself not directly observable. Its trace exists, however, as the gesture or form that is materially realised. This makes images an expression of an unconscious or a uniquely individual ego. My position is that images are not produced by an ego, but employed by one. It already exists in culture and has been produced by culture. We confuse this process of appropriation with the creative invention of the individual ego made possible by the very separation of the ego, a supremely individualistic trope, from culture. In this way, the meaning of the image is also produced by culture and we engage it subjectively and personally in the same way we use a word to express an idea. Words are produced by culture, but we use them in the act of expression and communication. But we don’t think that as we employ a word, we invent it.

AWB: You are well regarded and respected as an important educator in the arts [Gaines teaches at the California Institute of the Arts]. What does arts education mean to you?

CG: I always regarded my classes as extensions of my studio. I am able to collaborate with students on ideas, engage in theoretical debate over art and culture, make propositions about the nature of meaning and test out those ideas through works of art with my students.

AWB: How has being such a committed educator informed your perspective and how you make or think about artwork?

CG: There is no separation between the way I think as an educator and an artist. It’s an advantage I have working with great students in an advanced art programme such as CalArts.

AWB: Has being a teacher shaped your ideas? Are there students who stand out in your mind, who are doing tremendous things? The idea of living artistic lineage through teaching is an important one for me, and I fear that it is losing its importance.

CG: As I say, the classroom is an experimental space where ideas can by proposed and tested. This is done through art objects, but the emphasis is on the ideas that the objects seem to generate. I don’t think of it as mainly or simply the deployment of one’s values as a teacher on to students so that there remains the possibility of a legacy based on that. This is not to say that the teacher does not have a particular ideological perspective. It is to say that my intention is to use the classroom as a space of contestation. And in the light I can learn from the experience such a space produces, but so do the students. My idea about pedagogy is not simply to make a nurturing environment that allows students to find their voice. Some feel that a teacher’s role is to help the student discover what uniquely interests him or her and to help facilitate that interest, and not to challenge that interest for fear of discouraging the student, or to risk that the challenge is based on a desire that the student embrace the teacher’s ideological perspective. This perspective is an extension of the same ideas that advance expressivity and the idea that a particular subjectivity transcends social, cultural and critical concerns of culture. It also extends the idea that the new comes from the unfettered ego and not from culture, whose role is to limit individual freedom.

My idea of teaching is to get the students to feel that the value of their idea is measured by how it contributes to culture, not how it memorialises the self. Exposing students to your ideological beliefs and tastes provides the terms of contestation and the opportunity to improve one’s verbal and critical skills. To this extent, I try to create a critical space where their ideas are contested. It is inadequate to feel that making art is principally about finding one’s own voice. Although this is very important, it is more important to find a way for the personal voice to matter to others, to be recognised as something more than the fancy of the individual. Establishing and maintaining individual egos is not enough, for the perspective expressed by that ego has to be meaningful in some way to others.

AWB: Do you think arts education is moving in any particular direction?

CG: Negatively, it is getting too expensive and too pragmatically oriented toward a system of jobs. Which could be fine if it were not at the expensive of knowledge acquisition. The problem with pragmatics is that it cannot imagine a future.

AWB: What do you think of the newly emerging social practice programmes and concentrations? While artists have been working in this way for a long time, for whatever reason, it is becoming a term and school of making and thinking.

CG: They are great because the idea of art as an autonomous practice (independent of culture) is on the wane.

AWB: How do you see art taking shape as not independent of culture specifically? Are there projects you have worked on or seen recently that come to mind that embody this?

CG: My work in general tries to create a space where one can at least become aware of how one constructs meaning. I try to put this in place by comparing unrelated things, and how a relationship that is clearly arbitrary can seem convincingly meaningful. I am also interested in how these opposing experiences can exist in a single experience. In my work Night/Crimes (1993), I combine a photo of a person convicted of a capital crime, a crime scene and a picture of the night sky. The crime scene and the photo of the criminal are culled from the Los Angeles Times photographic archives and the night sky comes from a collection of photographs produced by an amateur astral photographer. The three image sources are unrelated, in that they are not products of a single event. The murderer did not commit the crime in the crime scene, for example. But by contextualising these three images within a single frame, and by coordinating a space/time relationship between the three by indicating the location of the crime using the latitude and longitude markers of LA, and the location of the night sky as being present at the moment of the crime, a metonymic chain is created, producing a fictitious relationship between the three. This relationship is argued to be true by various cultural narratives that justify it, such as theories of gravitational pull on our emotions and behaviour, astrology, and even how they can be understood inductively or deductively. There is a sense of truth that they produce on the level of our feelings while, rationally, we understand that these things are not empirically true.

AWB: What are you working on in the studio at the moment?

CG: I’m continuing with projects such as Numbers and Trees, as well as the Manifestos and Librettos series, both the performance and installation.

AWB: I’d love to hear more about your body of work titled Manifestos and what brought you to this form and idea?

CG: As I mentioned, I had come to a realisation that I could engage syntactics in a way similar to the way I engaged mathematics earlier, in order to realise a system-produced image that translates an object in the world. This was when I began to work with representation, in around 1993. Manifestos is an extension of this because I realised that I could engage random and arbitrary relationships using music theory as the organisational language that translates letters into notes, hence having the text be the source for the production of the music rather than using the rules of composition to intuitively realise a musical score.

AWB: What was your experience of being in Prospect 3 in New Orleans? Do you find large, biennale-style exhibitions compelling and interesting forms of production for artists, curators, writers and the sites where they take place?

CG: Biennales and large international shows are great opportunities to find out what the dominant trends and ideas are. For example, there is an increase in the consideration of art as cultural practice rather than the idea that art functions beyond culture. This year’s Venice Biennale and Prospect 3 demonstrated this.

AWB: How has the landscape in Los Angeles changed for the arts during your time there? There seems to be a big momentum shift that started about a decade ago towards Los Angeles, and away from New York, as the rising place of importance to see contemporary art. What are the key changes from your perspective?

CG: Everyone is moving to LA. It’s cheaper and it has a lively world-class artist/gallery/museum community. Galleries are also moving here, and the expansion in museum programming is demonstrating an ever-expanding cosmopolitanism in LA. The challenge is to keep a critical environment in the face of all this increased attention and market interest.

AWB: What are the key ingredients for keeping the critical environment? Curator Renny Pritikin of San Francisco, now the chief curator at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, once wrote a list of 23 rules or ideas as a “prescription for a healthy art scene”. Do you have similar values, ideas or opportunities that must be available if LA is to remain critical and productive?

CG: No, my idea is nothing like Pritikin’s. What I mean by criticality is built into the idea that the purpose of a work of art is to contribute to the history of ideas and add to our understanding. This is a purpose growing out of a general belief that doing so would improve the quality of life and reach, as Marx says, the full power of our human potential. The idea of human potential describes a social state where humans can reach a human potential as a group that is not possible individually. So, since I think conservative agendas attempt to focus on the individual and progressive agendas focus on the improvement of society through social relations, art is necessarily a liberal practice and is part of this project. Of course, art can be a conservative practice and see itself outside, or transcendent of, this interest. In my view, since I see it as a liberal practice, it should be interested in knowledge ahead of pleasure. Needless to say, art does not have to be oppositional to pleasure – there is great virtue in the pleasure of language, the picture, the painting, and so on. But when this pleasure is not contextualised by a larger social agenda, such as the acquisition of knowledge, a social contract, then it becomes the tool of the ego and the self, and is only useful in feeding the idea of the individual, and forms the binary opposition of the individual and the communal. The society is then seen as something that inhibits the experience that we identify with the self by setting ideological or morality-based limits and rules, which, as they argue, limits experimentation and risk-taking. But this argument is a false one, that the very principles of growth, change and invention operate only within socio-political spaces because such constructs exist within contested spaces, not the transcendent space of the ego. Contested spaces are ones where one’s personal beliefs are open to public scrutiny, hence are challenged tested.


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