Infinite Re-Combination: Q+A With Charles Gaines


Coinciding with the Getty Center’s “Pacific Standard Time,” a region-wide initiative highlighting post-war L.A. art, Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects is exhibiting a series of new drawings plus a sculpture by Los Angeles-based artist Charles Gaines. New works like String Theory: Rewriting Bataille and SkyBox use altered images and tropes spanning a 40-year career consisting of arbitrary juxtapositions in drawing, sculpture and collage.

In his “String Theory” series (2011), Gaines adopts the text of Georges Bataille’s “Eroticism” and “General Economy” as his subject matter. Drawing with graphite on paper, the artist combines sentence fragments using improvised grammatical rules. Lines like, “In happiness pleasure is the desire whose sweeping horror invites torture” assign new meanings to Bataille’s concepts while alluding to the original text. Combined with shading that resembles plumes of smoke, the series reveals the arbitrary and mysterious nature by which meaning emerges.

For SkyBox, Gaines has lined the surface of a 7-by-12-foot light box with four historical texts on liberty and democracy. Thousands of tiny holes have been laser-cut into the box’s surface so that as the gallery periodically darkens, constellations in the night sky emerge while the documents disappear from sight. Each constellation scene corresponds roughly in date and place of writing to the respective document it replaces in darkness. As in the past, Gaines juxtaposes poetic qualities and charged rhetoric to create a theater for political contemplation.

A.i.A. sat with Gaines in his Eagle Rock studio to discuss this latest work and his commitment to using language as a conceptual tool.

PAUL SOTO  How is your use of patterns and numbers, in series like “Trisha Brown” (1980), where gridded numbers are used to create the silhouettes of numbers, similar to language?

CHARLES GAINES  I used language for the first time in 1979. The similarity between algorithmic systems that are used to produce sequences to that of language—the syntactical relationship of language to the semantic and pragmatic—occurred to me then. For example, all of the letters of the alphabet can be combined to form meaningful words, but while you’re reading words in a meaningful way, you don’t lose sight of the fact that they’re made up of a limited set of symbols. It’s an idea from Borges that if you arbitrarily sequence the letters of the alphabet, some of those combinations will form The Bible or War and Peace. Language becomes meaningful because we assign combinatorial rules to letter sequences. We are not aware of the infinite number of possibilities that could happen because they are being limited by the rules, and the rules themselves are arbitrary because they are social conventions.

SOTO  When speaking about “String Theory,” you have shifted from creating “systems,” to now calling the conditions you set in place “rules.”

GAINES  I started using the term “rules” because it occurred to me that I was making restrictions to the infinite number of combinations, or even a finite number of combinations. I am making very special decisions in an infinite field, which is more like assigning rules, rather than creating a system.

SOTO  In the past you’ve proposed removing your subjectivity from your work, which seems to be contradicted by the conditions you’ve assigned here in manipulating the text. In “String Theory,” you select the first word from the first sentence in a paragraph of Bataille’s text, and then the first word from the second sentence that works syntactically. However, once you form a new paragraph, you shift sentences and words around for clarity’s sake, so it doesn’t seem completely random. It reminds me of Manifestos (2008), for example, which you showed in the Hammer Biennial. People tended to be very moved by the music created by what you claim to be an arbitrary system.

GAINES  My subjectivity wasn’t involved in the material use of those strategies. My choices themselves produced the system, so I made no qualitative decisions. Manifestos is an emotionally powerful piece, insofar as the musical notation determined by the ordering of letters in the political texts was set to strings. Most people make a direct connection between an emotional feeling and subjectivity. I’d argue that you wouldn’t have a different emotional response to different musical notations.

SOTO The text-image diptychs from the 2007 “Explosions” series, which consisted of drawings of reconfigured excerpts from Marquez novels hung next to very meticulous drawings of explosion scenes, have been unified as one drawing in “String Theory.” The reconfigured Bataille text dominates, but the shading here appears to be an excision of an Explosions drawing.  Could you expand on the ideas you are working through by combining these two elements?

GAINES  I wanted the metonymy to exist both as subject and object. The text and the way the text is produced in String Theory is part of this larger framework that operates both in terms of text and image. I wanted to get away from the image-caption relationship. Not so that people are not invested in the meanings, because that relationship does produce meanings. But I also want the audience to know that the meaning produced is arbitrarily constructed, so that the function of the metonym surfaces at the moment of the awareness of the arbitrary. I thought that if I collapsed these two properties, the experience would intensify.

SOTO  What is it about drawing that allows you to relay your ideas about language?

GAINES  First, the hyper-authority of the documentarian state as a result of mechanical reproduction. Second, working with drawing forces me to make rhetorical decisions with respect to the image. Unlike esthetics, rhetoric comes out of the mechanics of sign production. The rhetorical form of expression is important to me because it is apart of the construction of meaning.

SOTO  What role does violence play in your work?

GAINES  Violence, as in Night/Crimes (1995), was one of my earliest subjects when I started dealing with language. I wanted to show that violence can be constructed in a piece, like any other sentiment. This is part of the critique against the notion of the esthetic being a condition of the natural, and thus a condition of the sublime. A lot of my work deals with political documents and part of it has to do with this critique of how art deals with political concepts. I was always troubled by the idea of art being outside the realm of social and cultural responsibility, by the idea of a direct relationship between the subject/self and the esthetic effect, and that the esthetic effect is a marker of the self.

SOTO  Are you undermining the idea of art as an autonomous space by using these political texts in SkyBox as theater objects?

GAINES  That was the wacky thought that I had! By dimming the lights in the gallery, you can read them less and less. Then the words are gone, and the night sky appears. After two or three minutes, the lights slowly brighten again, and the text emerges. It happens frequently enough that you cannot read the entire text without being interrupted. I want to make the argument that art is completely absorbed within politics, and that art has an ethical and moral responsibility.