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Charles Gaines

American, b. 1944


Oil on canvas
36 x 95 x 1.5 in.
Gift of Joe Austin and the Kathryn C. Wanlass Foundation

In a career spanning more than four decades, Charles Gaines has become known for conceptually rigorous and formally compelling works exploring aesthetics, language, politics, and systems. He has played a key role in the advancement of conceptual art, and much of his work involves precise, self-assigned instructions as well as series comprising interrelated works. Each work in a series is dependent on the one immediately prior, establishing a sequential lineage. Gaines shared conceptual art’s skepticism toward the privileging of creative genius, as he became fascinated by the possibilities that could be explored within the limits of systems. Influenced by the chance procedures of John Cage as well as by Tantric Buddhist drawings generated through specific yogic visions, Gaines came to disavow Western notions of the role of imagination in art.

Untitled (1986) represents the artist’s early interest in serialized projects. Each of the work’s four sections represents a tree’s gradual process of change. Gaines often began these works with an arbitrarily selected arithmetic formula, which generated shapes that he plotted onto a grid. He employs color as a formal system to indicate different types of data, rather than for expressive purposes. Filling cells with vibrant paint, Gaines plots numbers to index the leaves and branches of each tree. He begins at the center of the trunk, counting outward in both directions to create a pixilated image guided by the numerical system. As the series progresses across the four sections, the previous trees, each denoted by a different hue, appear on each subsequent segment, resulting in a prismatic kaleidoscope of layered colors. The cumulative effect of Gaines’s conceptual procedure is a work of the expressive sublime.

Naima J. Keith

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