The first thing you'll see at "Charles Gaines: Gridwork, 1974-1989" is a walnut tree. There are dozens of them.
It starts out with a triptych — an artwork made up of three panels. There's a photo of a tree, an outline of the tree’s silhouette on a grid, and then a third drawing, in which the tree’s outline has been filled in with numbers. It looks kind of like a needlepoint pattern.
Move on to the second piece, and it's another triptych — a photo of a different tree, the outline of that tree on a grid, but in the third panel, he's drawn the second tree on top of the first. Gaines repeats these steps 27 times altogether, using a different color for each new tree.
The final drawing in the series is a colorful explosion of numbers on a grid, all 27 trees layered on top of each other. You’re seeing an entire orchard in just one drawing. Hence the name of the series: "Walnut Tree Orchard."
This process and variations on it have defined Gaines’ career. He’s used it on different subjects, like human faces and dance.
(From Charles Gaines' "Motion: Trisha Brown Dance" series (1980–81). Courtesy Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects. Photo by Robert Wedemeyer)
Gaines was born in Charleston, South Carolina and studied art at the Rochester Institute of Technology. He started teaching at CalArts in 1989 and has lived in Los Angeles ever since. Charles is African American, but he says that despite coming of age as an artist in the 1970s — when the art world was interested in what he called "discernibly black art" — his work never fit the bill.
Yet Gaines says his career has always been driven by his identity as a black man. Conceptual art let him experiment with the idea of arbitrary systems, which he relates to the racism he’s experienced from a young age.
"As a three or four-year-old, I always wondered about Jim Crow laws in the South and why these laws existed," says Gaines. "I was really confused about the laws of chance where you’re born into a minority group, and what’s at stake and how do you get out of that kind of identification. So my interest in representation grows out of my experience as a black person."
Being a conceptual artist also allowed him to separate himself from his work. When you look at one of his grid-based drawings, you don’t see Gaines. You see the system he invented to make it.
(From Charles Gaines' "Motion: Trisha Brown Dance" series (1980–81). Courtesy Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects. Photo by Robert Wedemeyer.)
"Nobody knew I was a black artist. So when I was introduced in social situations, people were always surprised," says Gaines. "Which is to say that people are surprised when they meet a black artist."
One encounter with racism stands out to him in particular. He was part of a traveling show at the Leo Castelli Gallery and one of the places it stopped was Dartmouth College. Gaines just happened to be driving through the area and decided to drop in for the opening.
"The curator of the show and the director of the gallery there came up to me and said how wonderful it was for me to come," says Gaines. "There was problem — they’re all going out to a dinner reception at a restaurant and they can’t invite me because they don’t serve black people there. And this was like Dartmouth, in 1979. It’s not that long ago."
It was a catch-22. He often faced discrimination from white critics and curators, but other African American artists didn’t consider him a part of their community at the time either. So when The Studio Museum in Harlem, which focuses on African American artists, proposed a retrospective to Charles in 2014, he was thrilled.
Now, it's here at the Hammer Museum. Curator Anne Ellegood, who organized the exhibition’s visit, says it makes sense for it to come to Los Angeles, where Gaines has been making art and teaching for over 25 years.
"The show focuses on his work from the 1970s and 80s, a fifteen-year period in which he was very productive. He made a lot of work, but also, it was a very formative part of his career," says Ellegood. "For audiences in Los Angeles, I think it will be very eye-opening for them to see this incredibly important Los Angeles artist at a pivotal point in his career."