A conversation between Charles Gaines and Stacen Berg

Charles Gaines and Stacen Berg in Charles’ studio in Los Angeles, CA. Photo: Sim Canetty-Clarke

  • Jan 13, 2019

Stacen Berg is a Senior Director in Los Angeles and sits at the helm of the LA space. In addition to managing the gallery, Stacen enjoys close relationships with many of the artists based in the city and has extensive knowledge of the local arts scene.

Stacen Berg: Ok, so we're talking about the work that is being featured at our booth at Art Basel. It is from a series called Tiergarten, which is part of an ongoing body of work that has been occupying you for the last few years. Could you introduce the work? Charles Gaines: Yes. My vision and purpose in this work is to create a system that serves to translate—or transfer—the image of a tree from a photograph onto a grid. The work for Basel is a new variation in the series, since I’m working here with watercolor for the first time. SB: You have talked before about how these works are made according to a ‘system.’ Could you describe the numbering system and by what system you're applying those numbers onto the tree? CG: Essentially, how it works is that I draw a grid onto a photograph I’ve taken of a tree, then put numbers in those squares where the shape of the tree falls. The numbers are structured progressively, so I start with ‘zero’ in the middle and I count outwards from the center left and center right. Then I transfer this onto a blank grid: that's the utility—the function—of the numbers. They facilitate whether to transfer the photographic image. The numbers convert the photographic image into a kind of geometry. And the transfer takes the image from the grid into a geometric pattern of numbers. In the watercolors, it transfers the shape of the tree from the photograph to the watercolor paper. And then I’m able to help realize the shape of the tree by filling in the squares that are numbered with color. In this piece, there are four parts that correspond to four trees. The final work is based upon the idea of aggregating this shape of the four trees on top of each other, but to do so in a progressive system. I first realized the shape of the first tree using this process of filling in squares. And then in order to do the second piece in the set, I transfer the shape of the second tree on top of that first tree, and so on. Each tree has its own color so you can distinguish the trees from each other as they aggregate.

Charles Gaines, Numbers and Trees Watercolor I (detail) © Charles Gaines. Photo: Sim Canetty-Clarke

Charles Gaines, Numbers and Trees Watercolor I (detail) © Charles Gaines. Photo: Sim Canetty-Clarke

SB: And what emerges in terms of the general shape of a tree? CG: As you might expect, the image that you see is an evolution depending upon where the particular piece is in the series. So for the fourth series, the purpose is to aggregate the shape of four trees on top of each other. But it’s about the process and the system. What's important to consider is that each piece in the set is playing out a system. You can also see that the purpose of the system is to facilitate the layering of the trees. The fact that there are visual consequences to the system is what interests me, because we respond to that as an image as we respond to an image as a design.

‘I am interested in the realization that everything—no matter what it is that you’re looking at—is reduced to a system... an image considered to be a work of art doesn’t have to be produced by the creative imagination; it can be produced by a system, but it can still be work of art.’

We might think about that critically in terms of mathematics or geometry, or you might think about that aesthetically because the sort of nuance in the shapes and distributions of color produced create a visually pleasing image. I am interested in the realization that everything—no matter what it is that you're looking at—is reduced to a system. I’m addressing the idea that an image considered to be a work of art doesn't have to be produced by the creative imagination; it can be produced by a system, but it can still be work of art. SB: In creating an artwork systematically, does that eliminate any subjective impulse in the work? For example, how do you choose the tree? CG: It’s not crucial. It really doesn't matter what tree I use. I decided to geographically locate the site of the series. So I would choose a site such as Central Park, or Tiergarten, or a park in Vancouver. Then I just take 60 or 70 photographs of the trees that are available to this process that I just described. The only question I have to ask is whether I can isolate this tree from the other trees in the environment, and if so then I’ll take a photograph. SB: And how many are in this Tiergarten series? CG: Since I’m using watercolor here, there are only four. The watercolors won't be an extended series like the acrylic on Plexi box because of the nature of the material—there's a point of saturation with watercolors that happens much quicker than with the acrylic pieces. SB: I’d like to talk about your show coming up at Hauser & Wirth this fall in Los Angeles. It’s a hometown show. How long have you lived in LA? CG: I’ve been in LA since 1989. SB: And at CalArts for... CG: The same amount of time. SB: Right, you have influenced a lot of students and you are a big part of this community, so for us to have your first exhibition with Hauser & Wirth here in Los Angeles is really important.

Photo: Sim Canetty-Clarke

CG: No [laughs]. I mean, I’ve had lots of LA exhibitions but for me this is more about the opportunity of doing it at Hauser & Wirth. I'm thrilled at the idea of doing an exhibition within the Hauser & Wirth context. SB: It’s been fascinating to watch the LA gallery evolve and one of the most satisfying things for me is that our LA artists come to the restaurant or come to events. And you recently organized a film series for us here. In this way the gallery serves as a place—like an extension of our artists’ community. It makes it much more meaningful for those of us working here to have different layers of interaction and relationships with our LA artists. The gallery kind of becomes a home for them. With your presence we feel even more connected to the city and the history here. So, thank you. – ‘Numbers and Trees Watercolor I’ is part of Hauser & Wirth’s presentation at Art Basel, from 13 – 16 June 2019.