Charles Gaines

Nate Young

NATE YOUNG: I’ve heard you tell this story about a bird

[laugh together]

So could you talk about the bird?

CHARLES GAINES: It really begins with the work I was doing in the ‘70s, which as you know is the work that I call my mature work…My practice is based in systems. It’s a rule-based practice of making art, and so a lot of people approach it as sort of both analytical and abstract. The time that I was young artist was a time when the civil rights movement was growing strong and had this critical effect upon the art world…The search for power, the search for identity was as important to minority artists as they were to many others, including people who weren’t artists. Some of the artists became quite active in trying to advance the notion of art as a cultural practice being essentially linked to their being black and oppressed. The lived experience of art became connected to the lived experience of being black. Black artists who were invested in phenomenological ideas or modernist ideas found themselves being asked a question “what is the relationship of your work to your lived experience?” Essentially, they would say, “you are producing white art” and I thought that was a problematic position, making that kind of determination about what kind of work you should be making. But I should also say that I thought it was a legitimate question…

So you thought it was a legitimate question?

It WAS a legitimate question!

But problematic…

I think that you can be asked to be more responsible in addressing this kind of issue because it does relate to what’s going on in the world, without telling people what kind of art they should be making. It’s always been interesting to me because the art that was linked to the Black Power movement or the black identity movement and so forth—the “art form”—that idea of art came out of Europe. It was a certain idea of essentialist practice, which tied your art either culturally or organically to being black, biologically to being black, one or the other, or both.

It’s identical to the history of Expressionist art in Europe, and the difference is that the early European painters, modernist painters looked towards putting language aside in order to make art that was not overdetermined by cultural ideas and cultural values… and they looked at Africa as an example of how that could be done. But they didn’t try to make African art, what they did was they tried to see Africa as a place where art is made by untrained people. They saw abstraction as a kind of language, not pure nonobjectivity, but abstraction as a kind of language to address this trope of the untrained. Abstraction and the formal rules of composition maintain a certain kind of modernist language in the organization of Expressionist gestures and so forth. Rousseau, for example, wasn’t a trained painter but he was still given credit for having a European mind and for thinking on a higher level about the use of abstract forms than an African could…

So when I saw this aspect of modernism being appropriated by black painters as the key to connecting to certain intrinsic practices that are particularly racial…I always thought it was hypocritical because the whole idea of making art that way is not the way the Africans thought about making art. The idea of making art like that was invented in early-20th century Europe. In the ’70s, artists were at least able to make images that connected to blackness, but when they saw numbers and colors in my work, they asked “How do you connect that to blackness?” So if you’re not making art that comes out of your black experience, then you must be making art that comes out of your white experience, especially if you’re trained in a white art school. So I thought that was wrong, I didn’t have a way to deal with it at the time…but simultaneously, in talking about my work over the years, I’ve talked about my interest in systems of numbers and tried to excavate where that came from or how it came into being, other than going through a narrative of how the work developed from the influences around me. I asked myself why was I interested in certain things that led me in this direction. By asking myself that, I realized over time that I have a particular temperament that leads me that way, the term temperament is not very illustrative, ya know…I had to come to some kind of determination of defining what temperament meant, ’cause I didn’t want to name it as intuition, expressive…ya know?

Essentialist subjectivity…

Yeah, essentialist subjectivity, so this is where I go back to that story when I was a kid. I’ve always been interested in this way of looking at the world. When I was 3 or 4 years old I was walking down this dirt road, we lived with my grandmother when I was growing up in Charleston, and we lived at 149 Congress Street. Congress Street was this asphalt road and there was a dirt road that used to run perpendicular to it, and along the dirt road there were these shacks. These were truly shacks… I published an essay about my early experiences, and I included a picture of the kind of house I was born in, and we lived in one of the shacks, it was like 14 to 15 people living in this small shack, ’cause my mom had a lot of brothers and sisters. There were other people in that neighborhood who raised farm animals. So we would walk along this dirt road, and I would ask questions like “Why is a pig a pig?” ya know…“Why is a chicken a chicken?” One day I was looking at some birds in the trees and I was like “Why is that bird a bird?” and she said, “I don’t know honey, it’s a bird!” [laughs] and I said, “Do you think when I die I’ll come back as a bird?” and then she, well she got such a kick out of that question, that for years she would tell family and friends, ya know “Frankie used to ask this weird question [laughs] coming back as the bird.” And so I was thinking about that, ’cause I thought that story revealed something about my temperament, ya know…Thinking about that helped me answer the question I couldn’t answer before, ya know…Why I wasn’t making white art… And I realized this after reading Kubler, and Foucault, and Said…After reading all these people for many years I went back and put meaning to that story about the bird, which it’s like—it all makes sense, that was my way of dealing with the Jim Crow South, ’cause I remember that as much as I remember walking on the dirt roads, ya know that I was completely confused by why black people were treated differently.

I remember being in the zoo once and we had to go to the black fountain, I remember going to the white fountain and my aunt said, “no no you gotta go over there!” and I remember not knowing why. Then there was a white flamingo walking right in front of me, I remember at the time as I shifted over and drank at the “correct” fountain…and so I thought that this interest in animals as an idea of transformation is a strategy for getting out from underneath Jim Crow laws. My child’s mind thought that the meaning, the racial meanings, were arbitrarily assigned, ’cause I couldn’t make sense of it. It’s a question like “who’s in charge of assigning these meanings?” and “who’s in charge of assigning these roles?” because it seemed so arbitrary, ya know? So since they were arbitrarily assigned, it got me thinking about language, and how things are named. So I thought that if I came back not as a little black boy, but as a bird, ya know, that’s as arbitrary as being a white person or being anything else…I sort of recognized that if I had done that or if I could do that then I would’ve transcended and not been subject to these kinds of rules and the naming of individuals. I’ve always had a tendency to think about things abstractly, particularly in terms of language, in terms of theories of change and transformation, and I think that it was a solution to a racial problem that I was confronted with as a child.

I’ve always thought about your work as critically analyzing the apparatus through which the political manifests itself…as opposed to the literal application of the political.

I like the use of the word “apparatus” because it recalls structure, and yeah it’s the way I think. When I was working with the grid work, my investigation was singularly focused on representation…really emphasizing the issue of perception and the attachment of meaning to perception so that we can link the distance between how we see and have knowledge of what we’re seeing…The idea was to question the concept of unmediated perception. My assumption was that whatever we’re perceiving is being mediated by our cognitive perceptual apparatus. Part of that process of mediation was assigning these perceptions to certain predetermined meanings. This argument has been talked about by the empiricists and also the phenomenologists and so forth, they’re questioning the issue of the world. Do we get information directly from the world, or is the information that we get a construction of our cognitive apparatus?

In the early work, the way I raised questions of perception and representation was to talk about objects in the world. Visualizing them in terms of a certain kind of geometry, a certain kind of mathematical language, sort of pixelating the image so that the pixels would stand in for the perceptual moment, because it’s different from the object that’s being pixelated. It acts like the apparatus that we use to see things. But then if you try to close the gap between the object of perception and the apparatus that we use to perceive it, that gap isn’t closable. There’s no place where that moment of mediation is resolved. The best thing you could say is that there’s this persistent void between the two and I thought that would be a critique of representation in the early grid work.

So the attempt to close the gap reveals the impossibility of that, reveals the void…

Yeah, yeah by focusing on as you’re saying the apparatus, like if you just focus on the object and take the apparatus as an assumption, then this paradox isn’t an issue, because you’re assuming that what you’re seeing is real, ya know…

Would you say this is the apparatus through which ideas like race and social class rely on to exist…for us to perceive them?

Yeah that’s why I said your description is right on the money, ya know? I don’t know where you got your education but they did a good job…

[Laugh together]

Numbers and Trees: Central Park Series II (Tree #3), 2016, Detail.

‘Cause in fact that became my argument for the political that exists in those rule-based works. Even those dealing with plants and trees. Though I wasn’t making direct political statements, I thought that I was raising a political issue nevertheless…and then, at some point when I switched over to doing similar things but with semiotics, with a linguistic approach…

The “String Theory” work, or before that…?

Yeah, well String Theory’s involved in that, but the first work like that was “Night/Crimes,” where I put together unrelated things in such a way that one would be encouraged to form either a metaphoric or metonymic relationship, that helped frame meaning. I wanted to have people do that perceptually and cognitively but realize at the same time that this is a construction. That the meaning the viewer makes is arbitrary, and the object of their observation really doesn’t contain that meaning. Again, we live in this paradox and a certain kind of tension exists, but I was still dealing with large abstractions. Holland Cotter called it big abstract concepts. “Charles Gaines deals with big ideas,” he said. [laughs] But my colleagues at CalArts Andrea Bowers and Sam Durant motivated me to get more specifically political in my subject matter, ya know?

Night/Crimes: Scorpius, 1995.

Have you found that the less overtly political work was more effective in getting people to realize the higher-level content or meaning of the work? Is there a possibility that people get lost in the political subjects and stop before they access the real content or true subject of the work?

I don’t think so. When I started working with the language pieces, I understood that I was undertaking the whole realm of how meaning is constructed. The early grid work used geometry to raise questions in terms of the perceptual apparatus. This is how I used the geometry, but I wasn’t really looking at the structure of the sign or the structure of the image for that matter. At the time I thought that the grid that analyzed the object in terms of pixels was an analysis of the construction of the image. But now I don’t think it is. Because the image becomes this elusive affair. Later, in the language pieces I realized I was purely focusing on the level of language where meaning is formed, not on the elements, the analytical or syntactical or geometry of language, I wasn’t working on the level of the geometry. I was working on the subject of meaning. So what happened was that in doing that, a new element came into this, and this was a certain kind of affect, it existed in the Grid Work, too. I was interested in unpacking the idea of the importance of subjectivity in the production of expression, the principle that a work of art is a work of art because it is a product of an act of expression. If we take away that act, then it isn’t a work of art anymore. I was calling a check on that kind of idea.

One of the markers of the expressive experience is what we might call the aesthetic response, or the feeling response, to a work of art, ya know…The parts that involve the body. Normally, one would think that the reason they have this sort of physical, bodily response to a work of art is because that’s the product of their encounter with the expression of the artist. I sort of unpacked that idea and questioned whether that response has anything to do with unconscious expression. In these pieces, I set up this relationship between things that are unconnected…but I knew than an association would be formed on the basis of a metaphor or a metonym or both. There are certain cognitive results that happen in the brain when it makes these kinds of connections. Essentially, these results are affect-driven. They constitute the link between what something means and how one feels about it. I call it the sense of reality…The linking of the intellectual and the feeling response creates this three-dimensional space of the real, at least the illusion of the real…So I was engaging that as a critique of privileging affect in the production of works of art. For example, in the grid pieces if a machine can make you feel, then you don’t need your unconscious or your expressive ego to be the source to generate feeling. So what I’m critiquing is meaning-formation with respect to representation and images. This also critiques the idea of the expressive unconscious, and undeniably because you do have to encounter the fact that you have an emotional response to the piece… As I said before, it’s crucial that the viewers know that the emotional response is constructed. And if they know that it’s constructed, then they know it is not an illusory cause-and-effect metonym between the subjective and intuitive unconscious of the artist and intuitional space of the spectator.

You’re not claiming it’s constructed by your subjectivity, it’s constructed by something that’s outside your subjectivity, which is….

Exactly, yeah

I want to talk about the essay that you wrote in 2010, “Reconsidering Metaphor and Metonymy.” In the essay, you propose that using metaphor as a framework for the production of art serves to suppress critical thought, and you offer the metonym as an alternative. Because of its inherent social contingency, metonym has the ability to produce critique. Have you built upon those ideas, or have some of the ideas that you were thinking about then shifted, and if so, how?

I think that it’s still an elusive set of ideas for a lot of people, ya know, and I always claimed in the early days it’s because we had created this myth around the metaphor. Which is understandable because the metaphor is our first and earliest form of critique of works of art. Portraits critique, they unpack metaphors. Metaphors sustain this notion of the expressive object that is the foundation of modernist art, of modernist thinking. I think that if there’s any change, I’ve become much more explanatory in terms of the metaphoric function, and that’s because when I first wrote the article, people thought I was against the metaphor, so…

And that’s when they started throwing tomatoes?… [Laughs]

Oh yeah, literally, because the metaphor is a sacrosanct idiom. I mean people don’t want you to mess with their metaphors…I approached this by unpacking the binary, which I think people are so dependent upon, that determines the difference between art-making, logic, and rational thought. It’s what some believe separates art from culture itself. I have started speaking more about the metaphor to try to clarify how I wasn’t against the metaphor, and that what I was trying to do with the argument was an attempt to make a critique…I saw that the metaphor is being exploited and used as an ideology with respect to works of art, and this ideology was passed off as natural…Human beings naturally produce metaphors in order to produce art. I thought I had to get a better handle at explaining how interrelated or integrated the two functions are, metaphor and metonym. You’re never in a situation where there’s only one and not the other, never…right, but people tend to think that metonym is completely irrelevant to the function of art. This is the thing that I wanted to say. My argument is that the metonym is always part of the art function because it’s necessary in order to be able to frame a critique. I would essentially try to use [Roman] Jakobson’s model, which explains how both are necessary in terms of any critical thinking, any kind of thinking at all for that matter. He talked about it in terms of a vertical and a horizontal axis. In any moment of speech—and when you talk about metaphor and metonymy, you’re talking about what happens in speech—you have the choice of words to use. It’s a vertical axis. The choice determines whatever subject you want to have. It’s a vertical axis principally because of the way that sets of words are linked. All of the words within that column of words constitute a subject, or all of these words constitute a verb and so on…but they’re vertically linked. Then there’s a horizontal axis of succession, the sequence of words. When you speak a sentence you speak a sequence of words, but any word in the sentence can be associated with a word chosen from a vertical axis. In any moment of speech, you have the choice of words and then you have the sequence of words…and the sequence of words and the choice of words are both governed by convention…but these two things have to happen in order to be able to speak! The way that this links to metaphor and metonymy is that the metonym operates on the horizontal axis and the metaphor on the vertical. The idea of making art without these two things in operation is stupid!

Right, so it’s not necessarily a privileging of the metonym over the metaphor, what it’s essentially saying is that the metaphor has already been privileged. It’s sort of the same argument that calls affirmative action reverse racism. It can’t be reverse racism until you have more people of color working in high-profile jobs than you have white people working in them…then you start to get another imbalance where you would have to then reset another imbalance, but ya know, it sounds like the same kind of argument…

Yeah that’s why I call it a political argument. You have to take it out of the realm of the natural into the realm of the social, cultural, and political in order to understand what point I’m making about these forms of speech.

Early in your career, people were saying the work you were making wasn’t black enough, and I’ve been thinking a lot lately about black representation, representational painting or photography or what have you. Right now there seems to be a trend and a privileging of that kind of work.

I was just having an e-mail conversation with somebody about this…

I’m not that old but I’m old enough to be perceived as like the old curmudgeon guy…these days…I remember Terry Adkins used to rant about it, he was always, “so many black bodies being sold”…

Oh Terry had no patience…he had no patience for that kind of thing.

In talking about my work I’ve encountered the question “what is it about this work that’s black? Why is this abstraction or why doesn’t it have the recognizable black image in it?” This is still an issue, it seems. I wonder if you have thoughts about that?

When I look at a lot of the black figurative work being produced today, particularly with respect to the attention that it’s getting, I can’t help but feel…well…the very least I could say is that there’s some value being given, in the art world, to black figuration. I can’t help but see it as a certain kind of…a certain oblique racialization of practice, on both ends. It could be on the basis of the artist but also by the art world, which still finds it necessary to identify the blackness in an artist. I don’t know what to say, it becomes something that is commodifiable—or is it embraceable, is it measurable, is there value given—but it comes from the same old racial paradigm that has existed in defining white privilege, and how white privilege plays an important role in the lives of white people and nonwhite people. So I can see it as part of the same thing that was going on with me in the ‘60s. But then, if you painted the black body, you were castigated, right…I mean the black body was a radical statement in those days, but it became problematic. It had nevertheless a radical relationship to the art world, and I think that whether it was radical or not, that was one manifestation of white privilege, being able to make this kind of judgment on a particular kind of practice by black artists, and there’s another manifestation of white privilege going on advancing this stuff…so I think that you’re right…

You know, Okwui Enwezor and Isaac Julian, particularly in the 2015 Biennale, created strategies for talking about culture and talking about race. They tried to expand the language of that discussion without taking the politics out of it. Which means, in part, that the issue of identifying, in works of art, the concept of race morphologically through the black body…I mean, Isaac’s work—and his obsession with aesthetics—clearly raises this question…It’s a strategy that is conventionally used to bring value to things on the basis of a universalist paradigm…he’s saying well, ya know this idea of aesthetics as being a universal gesture, is actually a political articulation… and it’s this kind of discussion about the formal and aesthetic language of politics that allows you to see the politics at the basis of something like we’ve been talking about, the deployment of the black body as an object of expression. So you could see that the attempt at using the black body as a way of talking about one’s personal experience engages a kind of political language, not a personal language, you see? The delusion is that it’s a personal language when it’s
actually a political language. This has a lot to do with the
expectations of representation, expectations of the necessity of the identification of race in works of art, and plays against all those practices that are legitimate, that use the body or use other references of culture, because it minimizes or marginalizes those references around the same politics. So I think it disempowers a whole lot of art that shouldn’t be disempowered.

Do you mean that it oversimplifies some of the potential of those

Terribly, and I don’t believe in universal paradigms, but I do believe that there are crucial social and political issues and concepts that exist in culture that are complicated, and that works of art can do a fine job at dealing with this complication. But rather than having a more expanded vocabulary when dealing with culture ideas, of which race and gender would be a part, and a more expanded idea of how that can operate on a level of representation, there’s this sort of retreat into the hyper-simplification, the troping of that particular culture and cultural identity, which minimizes its ability to deal with these ideas in their complexity.

I remember one time when I was in your class, I think it was Content and Form, and I remember you saying, “making art is like stumbling around in the dark…drunk”… [Laughs]

Sounds like something I would say. [Laughs]

Because you’re trying to make this thing that doesn’t exist, and the darkness is the limitation of your perception, and you have to find that thing in the dark…What has you stumbling in the dark, at the moment?

That’s a wonderful question. What I can say is, I’m still working on the music pieces…

The manifestos?

Yeah. I’m dealing with musical tropes, like notations, and notational systems, and text, and I don’t have a lot of models out there to look at it in terms of dealing with musical notation as a subject matter in works of art. It’s not a singular vocation. A lot of musicians and composers read music scores as drawings—not on the basis of musical value but their drawing value. So I’m still sort of trying to figure out what it means to me to be working with this representational system and what the possibilities are. One way that I’ve been dealing with it is by using a Plexi box similar to the Plexi box that I’ve been using in my grid pieces, where I use the Plexi to be a transparent plane and that I print on and then I can integrate two different things by folding one on top of the other. I also have more recent ideas. I’m working on this one huge piece where I’m gonna produce a musical score as a sculpture. So if you can imagine a piano score, ya know, it has a bass clef and a treble clef, and the treble line is usually the melody line and also the harmony where the chords are. The bottom line is the bass line so you can have full chords. I want this to exist in three-dimensional space, and the notes will be three-dimensional, and so forth. On the one hand, I’m working on continuing the grid work where I have a much better idea of what I’m doing, and even though I’m still trying to do different things, I’m not questioning the very means of representation. Whereas in the music pieces, I’m constantly in the space of
not-knowing, questioning, and finding.

Manifestos 2 (Malcolm X Speech at Ford Auditorium), 2013, Detail.

How do you find resolution in these moments? For me, I go to bed when things feel out of control or unresolved. I stop thinking about it and go to sleep and then my brain resets. In the morning [snaps], I’m just like oh, I know what to do. Or I lay down on the studio floor, or I go play golf sometimes, I know you play tennis… sometimes it resolves just playing around in the studio…

Yeah, I mean, the ideas usually come to me wholly constituted, and at this point I rely on the fact that sometime between 5 and 8 o’clock in the morning is when, out of nowhere, something I’ve been pondering might find its solution…

They say that your brain is at its peak between the moment when you wake up and two hours after—that’s your brain’s prime functionality.

You know, that makes a lot of sense to me…and also, my work is labor intensive so I don’t have to really come up with a lot of ideas. They take so much time to produce, which is a good thing, because I would hate to go through this type of experience with each object I make. If you’re an expressionist painter, it comes out of a process, right, but my work is based upon problem-solving, creating a set of terms and conditions that I want to deal with and trying to figure out how those things can materialize the work of art. It tends to happen that way and I don’t think those kind of gestalt moments can happen often to anybody so I’m sort of glad…this is interesting for me, too…I know that you may think that I’ve always been this like extraordinarily remarkable and productive artist…


I hate to shake your confidence but…I’m not!


But I’ve had a kind of cuckoo career, right, and in the ’70s, I got a lot of attention and I was showing in the most important galleries, at least at the time in New York, but all that activity suddenly ended and I had this long period of nonattention…During all of that time…not the moments where I was grumbling that no one was paying attention…

[Both laugh]

…aside from those moments, I produced a lot of work. I had a lot of ideas. But I didn’t have the resources to do all the things I wanted to do. My work has always been labor intensive, so when I would start something, I would be working on it for years and I would want to do something else, even when that one thing wasn’t finished. When there’s more to do on that one thing and…You know Duro Olowu, Thelma Golden’s husband, he said something interesting to me…recently there’s been a lot of people paying attention to the work, and so it turns out that I now have a lot of resources to do a lot of things that I didn’t have years ago. One of the things this has allowed me to do is to go back into some of the earlier work. I discovered that I could do the old and new things at the same time, but then Duro said, “you’re lucky, being rediscovered, as a really really old man…”

[Both laugh]

“’Cause, you know, you’ve got so much…you don’t have to keep coming up with new ideas, ’cause you’ve got so many ideas back there that you never fully realized that you can spend the rest of your time working on…” There’s a lot of truth to that. I’m still struggling with new things and I have a lot of resources now to do things that I wanted to do without having to think of new ideas.

To take it to scale.

Yeah, yeah, yeah! And that’s a kind of a weird privilege of being one of these old black artists, ya know.



The art world’s gotten interested in old guys, right, and so one of the rare privileges of being one of the old guys is getting attention. I mean I got lots of stuff to make, I don’t have to sit there and go through the pain as much anymore as I would have if I’d had the resources and time to do what I’m doing now 10 or 15 years ago…

So, even despite all the grumbling, it worked out in the end…

Yeah, I mean, like it’s better than nothing happening.

[Laugh together]

Issue 12

Issue 11

Issue 10

Issue 9

Issue 8

Issue 7

Issue 6

Issue 5

Issue 4

Issue 3

Issue 2

Issue 1