A Love Supreme: Charles Gaines and Trees

by David Platzker
Walnut Tree Orchard (2nd Version): Set 1

‘Walnut Tree Orchard (2nd Version): Set 1,’ 1975–2014. Photo: Robert Wedemeyer

‘Charles Gaines: Palm Trees and Other Works’, published alongside the artist's 2019–20 exhibition at Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles, charts the evolution of the palm tree in Gaines’s work from the 1980s to the present. In a new text excerpted below, curator and art historian David Platzker puts Gaines's recent series, 'Numbers and Trees: Palm Canyon, Palm Trees Series 2', into the broader context of the artist's rigorous conceptual practice.

Trees have lain formally at the center of Charles Gaines’s work since the mid-1970s. They have stood as objective biological structures, embodiments of being; interceded as mediators of time; acted as silent commentators on particular locations; and made candid allusions toward issues around diversity and immigration.

In Gaines’s first works looking at trees, the ‘Walnut Tree Orchard’ series begun in 1975, [1] he used a medium-format camera and black-and-white film[2] to photograph walnut trees in an orchard near California State University, Fresno (then called Fresno State College), where he was a faculty member in the studio art program.[3] These images—near clinical in their clarity, composition, and depth of field—form the opening phrases in a group of triptychs, each pairing a photographic print with two drawings derived from it. The drawings are executed on hand-gridded sheets, like graph paper drawn in ink. In each triptych, the photograph is hung on the left; the center drawing outlines the trunk and branches of the walnut tree in the photograph, removing all of its context; and the right-hand drawing represents the tree through the use of a numerical matrix, placing numbers, rather than lines, to correspond to the tree’s shape.[4] This third panel is also subject to change: as the series progresses with the addition of further photographs of trees, information about those trees is overlaid successively in the triptychs’ third panels, essentially commingling one innately similar but wholly unique walnut tree with another.[5]

FIG. 2 ‘Numbers and Trees: Palm Canyon, Palm Trees Series 2, Tree #9, Kawaiisu,’ 2019. Acrylic sheet, acrylic paint, and photograph, 2 parts: 145 x 64 x 5 3/4 in. (368.3 x 162.6 x 14.6 cm) overall. Photo: Fredrik Nilsen
Charles Gaines ‘Numbers and Trees: Palm Canyon, Palm Trees Series 2, Tree #9, Kawaiisu,’ 2019. Photo: Fredrik Nilsen
FIG. 3 ‘Numbers and Trees: Palm Canyon, Palm Trees Series 2, Tree #10, Tübatulabal,’ 2019. Acrylic sheet, acrylic paint, and photograph, 2 parts: 145 x 64 x 5 3/4 in. (368.3 x 162.6 x 14.6 cm) overall. Photo: Fredrik Nilsen
Charles Gaines 'Numbers and Trees: Palm Canyon, Palm Trees Series 2, Tree #10, Tübatulabal,’ 2019. Photo: Fredrik Nilsen

These works, and others including Gaines’s ‘Faces’ (1978–79) and ‘Falling Leaves’ series (1979), operate similarly in overlaying information acquired first within unique photographs, then built sequentially in increasingly complex drawings that pull information forward systematically in logical progression. For Gaines, these works reference known objects in the world—trees and faces—as basic origins, allowing the viewer to extrapolate, identify, and objectify those objects in the world.
But there is also an element of social critique: although that approach was not initially part of Gaines’s thinking regarding the objecthood of the walnut trees, he later came to feel that the trees represented migrants. The walnut is not a native species in California; originally from Persia, it was imported into the state by the Franciscan monks who established missions there beginning in 
1769. Later, in 1843, walnuts entered into commercial cultivation around San Diego before spreading through the fertile and temperate areas of the state.[6] Well before Gaines began to photograph the walnut orchards in California’s San Joaquin Valley in the winter of 1975, the vast majority of the workers who harvested the trees were transient workers—undocumented people, predominantly from Mexico, working for low wages on behalf
of mostly Anglo and corporate landowners.[7]

Charles Gaines. ‘Numbers and Trees: Palm Canyon, Palm Trees Series 2, Tree #3, Lusieño,’ 2019. Photo: Fredrik Nilsen

Gaines’s ‘Numbers and Trees: Palm Canyon, Palm Trees Series 2’ (2019) is a body of large-scale works depicting palm trees in the ravines of the desert oases of Palm Canyon, near Palm Springs, California. In each of these works, a black-and-white photograph of palm trees in situ lies under a deep frame on whose Plexiglas Gaines has UV-printed a black grid, its cells selectively colored and filled in with methodical numbers—the procedure introduced in ‘Walnut Tree Orchard’ and appearing later in another series, ‘Numbers and Trees’ (1986–91). These works call into question both the objective nature of the trees within them and the subjective natural and material human actions that surround them.

Just as the walnut tree works alluded to those who tend the orchards, the palm tree series moves beyond its aesthetic qualities to encompass such questions as the use value of the trees, their points of origin, and property rights to the lands they stand in. The site, not far from Los Angeles, is notable as a natural habitat of Washingtonia filifera, the desert fan palm or California fan palm, one of the few palm trees native to Southern California. Where Washingtonia robusta, the Mexican fan palms that line so many Southern California streets, are imported and cultivated, the fuller, stouter California fan palms are autochthonous. The location of the trees Gaines photographed also marks the indigenous land of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians.

Rosalind Krauss wrote in her essay ‘Grids,’ of 1979, “I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that behind every twentieth-century grid there lies—like a trauma that must be repressed— a symbolist window parading in the guise of a treatise on optics.”[8] Krauss, who eschewed Conceptual art, here allows the possibilities of using the grid as a tool of subjective framing—a traditional window device—rather than a platform for privileging objective analysis. With the Plexiglas framework for the palm tree works, similarly, Gaines not only systematizes the trees’ structure but both provides an illusion of depth and calls up critical cultural and political issues; the tree becomes a figure introducing speculation on all of these things. The implication is that if one makes a site important, the history of that site then becomes important. As Gaines told me, “I don’t do anything in the work except produce the objects of or from the site.”[9]

Whether a tree is a walnut or a palm, the basic structure of its DNA tells it how to form according to its species. Over its lifetime, forces act on and transform it—the constraints of the ground it stands on, its access to nutrients and sunlight, its vulnerability to wind and pests, its responses to other natural and human activities. Humans are similar: we too are subject to forces both natural and imposed on us through circumstances of upbringing, class, education, nationality, gender, orientation, and, what is most apparent to other humans, the color of our skin. In time we acquire physical and emotional scars that further make us unique individuals. Gaines’s trees ask us to recognize how the information presented in them amalgamates—to acknowledge
how they layer together. Graphing living matter, they speak not only to organic objects’ own transformation and diversification but also to what happens to them in time.

Charles Gaines. ‘Numbers and Trees: Palm Canyon, Palm Trees Series 2, Tree #4, Kumeyaay,’ 2019. Photo: Fredrik Nilsen

[1] Charles Gaines dates ‘Walnut Tree Orchard (2nd Version)’ 1975–2014, with 1975 being the year of the works’ original execution and 2014 the year when they were remade in whole or in part. This is the system followed where applicable in the present essay.

[2] In the 1970s, medium-format cameras shooting 2 1⁄4-inch images on roll film were often the camera of choice for commercial and fine-art photographers because the negatives were larger than those of 35mm cameras, producing prints with a smoother grain when enlarged. Bulkier and heavier than 35mm cameras, they were often used on tripods, so that the shooting style of their users was generally slower and more deliberate than that based on 35mm cameras, which were lighter and more compact. The 2 1 /4-inch cameras typically featured a gridded ground glass to assist in composing the photograph before capturing it on film, allowing the image to be oriented against true vertical and horizontal axes.

[3] For a fuller history of Gaines’s biography see Naima J. Keith’s outstanding book ‘Charles Gaines: Gridwork 1974–1989’, exh. cat. (New York: The Studio Museum in Harlem, 2014). Howard Singerman’s essay ‘Charles Gaines’s Fresno,’ 89–95, details the politics of California State University, Fresno, and of the Fresno agricultural region.

[4] The numbers work outward from the center of the sheet, with the number 0 occupying that center and the individual squares to the left and right moving outward numerically, 1, 2, 3, and so on, toward the image’s edges.

[5] These repetitions follow a system. The third drawing in the triptych ‘Walnut Tree Orchard (2nd Version): Set 1,’ for example, reflects only the tree in the photograph in the same work, but ‘Walnut Tree Orchard (2nd Version): Set 2’ incorporates both the tree from ‘Walnut Tree Orchard (2nd Version): Set 1’ and the tree from ‘Walnut Tree Orchard (2nd Version): Set 2.’ Meanwhile, ‘Walnut Tree Orchard (2nd Version): Set 3’ incorporates the trees from ‘Set 1,’ ‘Set 2,’ and ‘Set 3’ ; and so on. In essence, as the sequences of work progress, each triptych’s third panel both moves forward and incorporates the legacy of the prior trees in the series. Different-colored pens are used in the numbers of these drawings to demark the individual trees as they overlay each other.

[6] See B. M. Lelong, in ‘California Walnut Industry’ (Sacramento, Calif.: California State Board of Horticulture, 1896), 5–6. California growers produce 99 percent of the United States’ commercial supply of walnuts; see R. H. Beede and J. K. Hasey, “The History of the Walnut in California,” in D. E. Ramos, ed., ‘Walnut Production Manual,’ Publication 337 (University of California, Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources, 1998), 8–15.

[7] In 2017, California walnut trees covered 335,000 bearing acres, producing nuts of $1.59 billion in total value based on price per ton. See ‘2018 California Walnut Objective Measurement Report’ (Washington, D.C.: United States Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Statistics Service, 2018). Available online at by_State/California/Publications/ Specialty_and_Other_Releases/ Walnut/Objective-Measurement/ 201808walom.pdf (accessed July 9, 2019). In 2018, walnuts were California’s seventh-most-valuable crop, following milk and cream, grapes, almonds, strawberries, cattle and calves, and lettuce. See ‘California Agricultural Statistics Review’ (Sacramento: California Department of
Food and Agriculture, 2019). Available online at http://www. 2017-18AgReport.pdf (accessed July 9, 2019).

[8] This phrase appears in both of the published versions of Rosalind Krauss’s ‘Grids’ essay. The first was ‘Grids, You Say,’ in the catalogue ‘Grids: Format and Image in 20th Century Art’ (New York: The Pace Gallery, 1978), n.p. The second, more academic in tone, was published in October 9 (Summer 1979): 50–64. Krauss’s texts were responsive to John Elderfield’s essay ‘Grids,’ published in Artforum 10, no. 9 (May 1972): 52–59. All three of these essays were, in part, written in opposition to Lucy Lippard’s text ‘Top to Bottom, Left to Right,’ a catalogue essay accompanying Suzanne Delehanty’s exhibition ‘Grids Grids Grids Grids Grids Grids Grids Grids,’ at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia, January 27–March 1, 1972.

[9] Gaines, in conversation with the author, May 5, 2019.

Charles Gaines’ first exhibition with Hauser & Wirth, ‘Palm Trees and Other Works,’ is on view at Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles 14 September 2019 – 5 January 2020.