Capturing Multiplicity: The Conceptual Work of Charles Gaines

Charles Gaines, perhaps America’s most preeminent conceptual artist that has flown under the radar, has his first UK solo show in 2021. So why has it taken so long?…
Words by Alexander Stubbs. First published February 13th, 2021 at The Mackayan.

When we overlay an image or a thing onto something else, it’s ostensibly an attempt to cover up the original; an attempt to hide what we once considered worthy of viewing, and what we now consider to be irrelevant or obscene. In Charles Gaines’ (1944-) conceptual work the act of covering up is not a reductive action, but is given strength. Instead of masking, Gaines layers his images on top of one another as a way to highlight what lies underneath, to draw attention to the image that sits waiting to be viewed. 

For Gaines, identity and inner subjectivity are as present in his conceptual work as they are in the work of other Black artists of the time. The numbers are just his way of showing it.

Gaines was one of the earliest proponents of conceptual art. His contemporaries included art world heavyweights, like Sol Lewitt, Joseph Kosuth, and Ed Ruscha, though Gaines would have to wait to receive the same level of recognition. Gaines, a Black artist first and conceptual artist second, seemed to be at odds with the Black Arts Movement of the 1970s. His work followed conceptual lines, which required a sense of detaching the self from the image, generating work that didn’t appear, at least on the surface, to speak to the social and political climate of his time. “How do I say that drawing 450 million numbers is really my expression of racial identity?” For Gaines, identity and inner subjectivity are as present in his conceptual work as they are in the work of other Black artists of the time. The numbers are just his way of showing it.

Enjoyed reading so far? Continue over at The Mackayan, here.

“Charles Gaines: Multiples of Nature, Trees and Faces” is on view at Hauser & Wirth from 29th January – 1st May 2021. The exhibition can be viewed digitally here.

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