Challenging Gridlock for Gridwork: A Trip to Harlem for Early Charles Gaines

The current exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem, Charles Gaines: Gridwork 1974-1989 (on view through October 26, 2014), encompasses an era of the artist’s work before he began confronting social content and identity head-on, as in the 1993 exhibition and publication, The Theater of Refusal: Black Art and Mainstream Criticism, which examined racial determinism in the artworld at that time. Despite the fact that the exhibition catalog and wall texts at the Studio Museum explain Charles Gaines as an artist who explores the “relationship between aesthetics, politics, language and systems,” the political and racial implications seem absent in this period of his oeuvre, or at least buried deep within systematical and conceptual thinking.

Charles Gaines Motion: Trisha Brown Dance, Set #1, 1980–81 Collection of James Keith Brown and Eric Diefenbach Courtesy Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects Photo by Robert Wedemeyer.
Charles Gaines, Motion: Trisha Brown Dance, Set #1, 1980–81. Collection of James Keith Brown and Eric Diefenbach. Courtesy Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects. Photo by Robert Wedemeyer. Image courtesy the Studio Museum.

One familiar with the aim of the Studio Museum – as well as Gaines’s more contemporary works – might anticipate a different body of work, one that confronts more evidently the “influence or inspiration from black culture,” as per the Museum’s mission statement. Rather, methodology and conceptualism – an influence likely stemming from Sol LeWitt, a major influence in Gaines’s career – come to the fore. The walls of the first room of the exhibition are lined with artworks featuring massive grids, among which are the key series Regression (1973-74), Color Regression (1978), and Numbers and Trees (1986-89). The impressive scale of a majority of the work is tempered by the delicate, precise handwriting that embellishes their grids and margins. But the monumentality of Gaines’s work has less to do with its physical size than the painstaking process that produced it. As the shapes and colors in the Regression drawings vary, it becomes apparent that each is driven by arithmetical operations, building upon each other and constructing systems similar to self-referential fractals.

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