A pivotal figure in the field of Conceptual Art, Charles Gaines’ body of work engages formulas and systems that interrogate relationships between the objective and the subjective realms. Using a generative approach to create series of works in a variety of mediums, he has built a bridge between the early conceptual artists of the 1960s and 1970s and subsequent generations of artists pushing the limits of conceptualism today.
Born in 1944 in Charleston, South Carolina, Gaines began his career as a painter, earning his MFA from the School of Art and Design at the Rochester Institute of Technology in 1967. In the 1970s, Gaines’ art shifted dramatically in response to what he would later call ‘the awakening.’ Gaines’ epiphany materialized in a series called Regression (1973 – 1974), in which he explored the use of mathematical and numeric systems to create soft, numbered marks in ink on a grid, with each drawing built upon the calculations of the last. This methodical approach would carry the artist into the subsequent decades of his artistic journey.
Working both within the system and against it, Gaines points to the tensions between the empirical objective and the viewers’ subjective response. The concept of identity politics has played a central role within Gaines’ oeuvre, and the radical approach he employs addresses issues of race in ways that transcend the limits of representation. His recent work continues to use this system with sociopolitical motivations at the forefront. ‘Faces 1: Identity Politics’ (2018) is a triptych of colorful portraits of historical icons and thinkers, from Aristotle to Maria W. Stewart and bell hooks. Gaines reduces the images to pixelated outlines, layered among the faces of the preceding portraits to create a palimpsest of faces, employing this system in a critique of representation and the attachment of meaning to images.
Gaines lives and works in Los Angeles. He recently retired from the CalArts School of Art, where he was on faculty for over 30 years and established a fellowship to provide critical scholarship support for Black students in the M.F.A. program. A survey exhibition of his work will be on view at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami in the fall of 2023. His work has also been the subject of numerous other exhibitions in the United States and around the world, most notably at Dia:Beacon, San Francisco Museum of Art, The Studio Museum, Harlem NY, and Hammer Museum, Los Angeles CA. His work has also been presented at the 1975 Whitney Biennial and the Venice Biennale in 2007 and 2015. In 2022, Gaines produced a new public art project with Creative Time, entitled ‘Moving Chains,’ on Governors Island, New York, along with a music performance and a sculptural installation in Times Square.
In addition to his artistic practice, Gaines has published several essays on contemporary art, including ‘Theater of Refusal: Black Art and Mainstream Criticism’ (University of California, Irvine, 1993) and ‘The New Cosmopolitanism’ (California State University, Fullerton, 2008). In 2019, Gaines received the 60th Edward MacDowell Medal. He was inducted into the National Academy of Design’s 2020 class of National Academicians and the American Academy of Arts and Letters in May 2022.
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