A philosopher as much as an artist, Charles Gaines thrives on the conceptual. He developed his theoretical approach to art largely through avid reading on a range of topics, from Western philosophy to Tantric Buddhist art. He explores seemingly straightforward ideas such as nature and disaster, but his work prompts questions more than answers, leaving room for doubt, uncertainty, and a general feeling of in-between-ness. What results is a self-examination of our beliefs and ideologies, our theories about beauty and art, and our comfort level with our own thoughts. Gaines's pieces narrate specific issues, such as inquiries into color and texture or the effects of global warming, which the artist tackles by systematically breaking them down. The beauty and simplicity of each composition constitute only the first layer in a theoretical investigation into the nature of our interactions and experiences.
While Gaines's works are never overtly racial in theme, his approach to creating art that is both conceptual and political is drawn in part from his experiences of art-world racism in the 1970s. Born in Charleston, Gaines grew up in Newark, New Jersey, and received his BA from Jersey City State College in 1966. He was initially rejected from the graduate program at Rochester Institute of Technology's School of Art and Design but made a trip up to the school to personally petition for admission. The first black student in the MFA program, Gaines received his degree in 1967. The next year he began teaching at California State University, Fresno, where he was a professor until 1990; he is currently on the faculty of the California Institute of the Arts, where he has taught since 1989.
Although politically motivated, Gaines's art structures politics around a philosophical and systematic examination of the issue at hand, thereby resisting an obvious reading into the work of any particular solution or judgment. The grid appears frequently as a tool for breaking down shapes and movements to draw out differences between what the eye sees and what it comprehends. The space between the two is where Gaines is most interested in going. It is a confirmation of our inability to solve every problem, an assertion of the limits of our understanding. The paradox in Gaines's work lies in the use of such methods of analysis to reach the conclusion that we cannot in fact make sense of all perceptual experiences.
Working in a variety of media, Gaines is the consummate technician. He carefully considers form, line, and color, which are the underlying structures upon which he builds conceptually. The combinations of organic forms and rigid lines nod to an ongoing appreciation of natural phenomena. A simple tree, for example, is stripped of color and texture and reduced to a strange ghostly outline, perhaps hinting at the effects of both natural cycles and human-made devastations. Furthermore, Gaines's art is generally large in scale, enveloping the viewer's field of vision and becoming an experience unto itself.
Many African American artists during the 1980s sought to address issues of race and identity politics explicitly, to provide a visual voice for ongoing problems in society. Gaines, however, refusing to create solely "black political art," remained drawn to conceptual and theoretical models as the basis for his art practice. As a result, his works fell outside the parameters of what many considered to be popular African American artistic production, while at the same time, his status as a black artist often excluded him from mainstream art circles, though he did receive early recognition from Sol LeWitt and Leo Castelli.
Frustrated on the one hand with the dilemma of being a black conceptual artist and on the other with the power dynamics of both the art world and the politics of race, Gaines began writing articles and organizing gallery exhibitions. As a writer and curator, he articulates his particular fusion of theory and politics to reach wider audiences and further explore his thought processes. He poses questions in areas as diverse as philosophy, aesthetics, art, and literature, revealing himself to be an artist well versed in the themes he explores and passionate about social concerns. With his art, writing, and exhibitions, Gaines uses a highly conceptual approach to think through universal ideas and issues that matter to him and to the viewer.
—Connie H. Choi
Solo exhibition, Cinque Gallery, New York, 1972.
Whitney Biennial, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1975.
Solo exhibition, Leo Castelli Gallery, New York, 1980.
Some Grids: The Grid in Twentieth-Century Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1996.
Double Consciousness: Black Conceptual Art Since 1970, Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston, 2005.
Venice Biennale, Italy, 2007.
Charles Gaines: Gridwork 1974–1989, The Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, 2014.
Charles Gaines: A Survey Exhibition, 1979–1991. Exh. cat. Paris: Galerie Lavignes-Bastille, 1991.
Keith, Naima J. Charles Gaines: Gridwork 1974–1989. Exh. cat. New York: The Studio Museum in Harlem, 2014.
Mizota, Sharon. "Clarity in Every Crisis." Los Angeles Times, July 29, 2007.
Snake River: Charles Gaines and Edgar Arceneaux. Exh. cat. Los Angeles: REDCAT; Linz, Austria: Lentos Kunstmuseum, 2006.
Tapley, Mel. "One-Man Color Extravaganza at Cinque Gallery." New York Amsterdam News, May 27, 1972.
Charles Gaines Wikipedia page.
"The Artist's Voice: Charles Gaines in Conversation with Naima J. Keith," uploaded to YouTube by the Studio Museum in Harlem, July 30, 2014.
Carolina Miranda, "How the Dense Grids of Artist Charles Gaines Took the Ego Out of Art," Los Angeles Times, March 3, 2015.
Victoria L. Valentine, "How Artist Charles Gaines Is Influencing the Creative Economy in Los Angeles," Culture Type, April 13, 2015.
Martine Syms, "Problems of Representation," Flash Art (May–June 2015).
Charles Gaines, "A Tale of Conflict: The Contemporary Museum in the Age of Liberalism," SFMOMA’s Open Space, March 8, 2016.