In Culture

Variations on a theme - Charles Gaines

Episode Summary

The groundbreaking visual artist Charles Gaines peels back rules and systems to create a new critical language. And host Dessane Lopez Cassell shows how conceptualism can be used to not just investigate the art world but also interrogate personal identity. For more information about Microsoft's In Culture podcast and to read the transcript, please visit:

Episode Notes

“A lot of people think that I was influenced to do conceptual art by looking at conceptual art, and that really wasn't the case. It was really a search for a certain sort of understanding of the self,” Charles Gaines says of his creative process. In this episode of Variations on a theme, host Dessane Lopez Cassell speaks to the pioneering visual artist about his radical approach to using systems and formulas as a critical language. We also learn how Gaines builds on Sol LeWitt’s foundations to tackle social constructs like racism and segregation.

For more information about Microsoft's In Culture podcast and to read the transcript, please visit:

Episode Transcription

Charles Gaines: A lot of people think that I was influenced to do Conceptual art by looking at Conceptual art. And that really wasn't the case. It was really a search for a certain understanding of the self.

Dessane Lopez Cassell: You're listening to Variations on a theme, a podcast devoted to exploring the work and influence of the late great artist, Sol LeWitt. I'm Dessane Lopez Casell.

Dessane Lopez Cassell: We've opened other episodes in this series with the words of LeWitt himself, as a way of offering some insights into his unique approach to Conceptual art. But this time, the person you heard at the very top was actually the artist Charles Gaines. He's our guest this episode, and together we'll be taking both a closer look at Conceptual art, as well as tracing a wider path for the movement and how it developed.

Dessane Lopez Cassell: Sol LeWitt was an incredibly important figure in Conceptualism. Influential to both his peers and countless artists who came after him. But he was just one figure in a very ideologically diverse movement. So it's not just that LeWitt launched a bunch of artists down a path similar to his. This episode explores LeWitt's work as a jumping off point and looks at his ideas in relationship to other ways of approaching art conceptually, including ones that depart radically from LeWitt's.

Dessane Lopez Cassell: Charles Gaines, is himself, a towering figure in Conceptual art, influential both as a practicing artist and as a time faculty member at CalArts in Los Angeles.

Dessane Lopez Cassell: His use of grids might be the most recognizable feature of his art and the way he's employed systems and formulas has been pretty radical. His art challenges rules and hierarchies by pushing viewers to really question what we understand as objective and subjective. His approach to Conceptualism, it really acted as a bridge between the movement's first-generation of the 1960s and '70s, and has also helped push the movement forward.

Dessane Lopez Cassell: There's really no one better I could speak to you about the nuances of Sol LeWitt's evolving legacy within the art world. And so I'm super excited to share some of the conversation I had with Charles. That's what's coming next.

Charles Gaines: How do you want me to introduce myself?

Dessane Lopez Cassell: However it feels comfortable to you.

Charles Gaines: Okay. All right. So my name is Charles Gaines and I'm an artist living here in Los Angeles.

Dessane Lopez Cassell: We started our conversation with the man of the hour, Sol LeWitt. First thing's first, I wanted to know how Charles thought LeWitt had influenced his approach to making art.

Charles Gaines: Because my work is rule-based and systematic, a lot of people think that Sol was essential influence. And in fact, he wasn't an influence, it didn't direct me toward it, but he was a key figure in helping me understand what I was doing once I was embroiled in it. And not only that, I attribute Sol as being responsible for the beginning of my career because my first exhibitions occurred because it was a direct result of Sol's interest in moving the work out there.

Charles Gaines: I met him for the first time in Los Angeles. I was teaching at the California State University Fresno. And one of my colleagues was being represented by Melinda Wyatt. And he suggested to her that she should look at my work. So I made an arrangement to go down to Los Angeles. I took some drawings, hoping that she'd be interested. When I was walking in I saw Sol walking out of the gallery and we nodded to each other. Now I didn't know it was him, because I'd never seen him. So I walked in and she asked me to spread the drawings out. So I did, I spread them out.

Dessane Lopez Cassell: These drawings were from Charles's regression series, which use serial mathematics to plot points on a grid and create these mesmerizing shapes. It was some of his earliest work in the style that would become one of his signatures.

Charles Gaines: So I walked back in and he saw them and he seemed animated. He started asking questions, just engaged in the conversation. I was having a conversation with Melinda. And if I walked out of the gallery, I would've gone home and said, "Oh, the great Sol LeWitt looked at my drawings." And I would've been happy for the rest of my life. But then he said, "Look, I'd like to see more when you come to New York." So he said, "When you get to New York, why don't you show me some more work?"

Dessane Lopez Cassell: And so he did. On a previous trip to New York in 1970, Charles met the pioneering black artists Norman Lewis and Romare Bearden, beginning friendships that would also greatly impact his art and outlook. And in 1974, he moved to New York for a time, later showing his work in the prestigious Whitney Biennial in 1975. And then later had a solo show in USC, in Southern California. But let's walk backwards for a second.

Dessane Lopez Cassell: Sol LeWitt gave Charles Gaines an important boost earlier in his career. But remember, Charles said that LeWitt helped him to better understand what he was doing already. And it's there, on the path that gets him to what would ultimately become his core work as an artist. That's where things get really interesting. Charles went to grad school as a painter in the 1960s and at the time...

Charles Gaines: All these modernist constructions that help form ideas about how to make a painting.

Dessane Lopez Cassell: At the time, painting was thought of as this form of translation onto canvas, of a product of the artist's imagination and individuality, and ultimately quote genius. You may remember this from a previous episode. This is exactly that expressionist idea that LeWitt pushed so strongly against. Still, Charles gave it the old student effort, so to speak.

Charles Gaines: I followed that prescription. I sat in front of blank canvases.

Dessane Lopez Cassell: He put his imagination to work, but painting in this quote unquote correct way, it didn't really feel right. In fact, he didn't feel much of a connection to it at all.

Charles Gaines: No, the reality of my whole practice is that nothing means anything. And I started to panic about that.

Dessane Lopez Cassell: Luckily though, Charles didn't let that be the end of it. He opened himself up to other influences, methods and possibilities. Music was a big one.

Charles Gaines: I was trained as a percussionist. It was the patterns that I could produce with the drums, the aesthetic experience of those patterns, its repetitions, how you can shape and form sound through the manipulation of patterns. That is an aesthetic effect that's interesting to me.

Dessane Lopez Cassell: That really connected Charles with the work of the contemporary composer, Steve Reich who worth mentioning was also a favorite of Sol LeWitt's. Reich's music isn't just about rhythms, but rather about patterns that take on a life of their own. Instead of something written through a stroke of genius, the composition becomes a starting point for something almost autonomous.

Charles Gaines: What I got interested in was being in a process that produced surprises.

Dessane Lopez Cassell: Maybe the final step on this path away from the expressionism he encountered in art school though, was getting back to his roots a bit. As a kid growing up in Charleston, South Carolina, Charles would pepper his mom with all kinds of questions about even the most mundane things.

Charles Gaines: Why is the chicken a chicken? Why is the hen a hen? Or why is a pig a pig or why is a bird a bird? And I said, "Do you think that when I die, I would come back as a bird?" The reason I asked this question is because I was living in the [inaudible 00:08:13]. That is to say my questions about existence came to me as the child, I think, because I could not justify or reconcile why I had to drink in this fountain that says, "For colored or white." Had to enter the back entrance of the movie theater or why I couldn't be on the bus anywhere that I want.

Dessane Lopez Cassell: Conceptualism as practiced by Sol LeWitt and others was a critical language, but that language was really directed towards critiquing art and the art world itself. Charles Gaines was totally on board with that critique, but his point of departure, he was more interested in considering what else peeling back rules and systems could do.

Charles Gaines: Rather than addressing the issue of segregation and racism as a social construct, I approached it as a critical construct. What I was trying to figure out, how did these ideas get put into place? Because they just made no sense.

Dessane Lopez Cassell: Questioning the sheer illogical nature of segregation and racial hierarchy would go on to become part of his work, even as he might not have realized or admitted it when he was first starting out. In fact, when he was coming up as a black artist in the 1970s, he felt really disconnected from what's now called the Black Arts Movement.

Charles Gaines: There was this overall notion that art as a discipline should be part of the improvement of culture. So the particular charge for black artists is that it should be part of that improvement of the culture of black people. And so the figurative artists couldn't figure out how perhaps the abstract artists were contributing to this narrative, because they were generally thinking that the abstract artists were making white art. So I was caught in that.

Charles Gaines: I wasn't an abstract painter in anything, but the same question was asked of me about whether... How can I justify working with these numbers and systems and rules when there aren't any representational links to the lived experience of the black person. And so I couldn't answer that question, but fortunately I knew it was a very important question and I was willing to take it on.

Charles Gaines: But I think that there are forces that are in place to limit our understanding and limit our sense of emancipation of freedom that we don't know about, that we take as just the norm. And the only way that you can find that and establish some agency is to do critical thinking.

Dessane Lopez Cassell: Take Charles's Faces series, for example, completed from 1978 to '79. These works are built from a series of frontal portraits, which are then reduced and color-coded along a grid. Though the portraits would seem to be quote objective representations of their subjects, taken together in the context Charles creates for them, they really force viewers to confront a number of questions, specifically about how we perceive individual identity. What were the questions you wanted to see your work spark and both inside and outside of the black arts community?

Charles Gaines: Well, in hindsight, of course, the most important question is the relationship of my work to my lived experience. And I want people to understand it in the context that, not as a formal language. One of the things that I knew, since I was dealing with systems and a rule-based process, I knew that that would be the way people would initially read the work. They wouldn't read it as a political critique. So I knew that that was something that I had to figure out. What I wanted was people to understand that theories of experience are political. Experience itself is a political construct.

Dessane Lopez Cassell: Here's where we get to some of the philosophical differences between Charles and Sol LeWitt. In LeWitt's work, the artists who execute his instructions to create his wall drawings, they end up shaping them via their own perspectives. So when you experience them, you're really experiencing his ideas through a form of mediation. What's on the wall is really an interpretation of the artist's original idea. While LeWitt's practice played off the variations introduced by each installation, the core idea always remains his, and it tends to hold steady, no matter the conditions of execution. Charles invokes rules and systems for the very purpose of shedding light on who and what those systems were designed to serve and uphold.

Charles Gaines: How do we adjust the maker in relationship to the set of rules that Sol had given to them. I saw the maker as establishing the domain of culture in Sol's highly formal practice. That culture did have a space and a practice. That's what I picked up as being meaningful to me because quite early on, I began to look at my systems work as not trying to avoid representation, but embracing representation.

Dessane Lopez Cassell: In some ways, this dynamic points to the abilities of artists to really eliminate the limits of their forebears. We can understand Charles's work as addressing a void left by Sol LeWitt's generation. But it's also a way of grasping the resonances of Conceptualism well beyond the art world. And Charles's work, it offers us a visual language for seeing that.

Dessane Lopez Cassell: Big thanks to our guest this time, Charles Gaines. 

Dessane Lopez Cassell: Sol LeWitt, Variations on a theme, is part of the Microsoft In Culture podcast. Follow us or subscribe wherever you're currently listening. This season is written by producer Jordan Rothlein and me, Dessane Lopez Cassell. This episode was edited and mixed by Nat Weiner and features original music by Angular Wave Research. Very special thanks to the estate of Sol LeWitt and to Lindsay Aveilhé, whose research on Sol LeWitt has been integral to this project.

Dessane Lopez Cassell: This podcast season is a companion to an app from the estate of Sol LeWitt, which was developed in close collaboration with Microsoft. It uses state-of-the-art technology like artificial intelligence to help immerse users in LeWitt's life, artworks and process. Download it now, wherever you get your smartphone apps. Sol LeWitt, Variations on a theme, is a production of Microsoft in collaboration with Listen, a sensory experience company in New York City.