In his titular series of drawings in the exhibition “Notes on Social Justice,” Charles Gaines inscribes quotes from artistic and political manifestos—by figures ranging from Marx and Mandela to Tinguely, von Trier and Vinterberg—on sheet music for early American popular songs, presenting the words as alternate lyrics. For “Manifesto 2” (2013), another series on view in this survey of works made between 1994 and today, Gaines transposes historical revolutionary texts into new musical scores. Initially, then, the show’s punning title might seem fitting. Yet the artist’s aleatory methods of composition complicate the title’s activist implications, raising thorny questions about the resuscitation of radical thinking absent the historical context and rhetorical cogency necessary for any credible appeal for social justice.
Gaines, a Los Angeles artist who has employed rule-based methods to generate erudite Conceptual works since the early 1970s, chooses to minimize his own subjective intervention into the creation and reception of his pieces. Yet, as with Conceptual artists from Hans Haacke to Adrian Piper, his systematic approach, aimed at withdrawing authorial presence, is paradoxically applied to political content that appears to stem from personal commitment. The result here was a productive tension, reminiscent of John Cage’s poetic pamphlet Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse), 1966, a paratactic accumulation of utopian proposals, social inquiries and quotidian anecdotes that never prescribes or prophesies but rather opens a space for deeper attentiveness to the mundane and the profound alike. Gaines, like Cage, assimilates the language of upheaval to an aesthetic of equilibrium. But his moves to reframe historic material also entail significant loss: one work from “Notes on Social Justice,” for example, juxtaposes statements from Kant, Hugo Ball and the Black Panthers in lieu of the original lyrics to “Dey’s All Put on De Blue,” an 1880 Garfield campaign song by Thomas Westendorf expressing cynicism about most politicians’ feigned dedication to African-American rights. Today, the song’s biting lyrics, written from the perspective (and in the vernacular) of a former slave, are more linguistically rich and politically potent than canonical texts combined through a tried-and-true idiom of bricolage.
For the show’s centerpiece series, “Manifesto 2,” Gaines set to music Malcolm X’s last public speech, the 1791 Declaration of the Rights of Women and more recent texts arising from indigenous and immigrant struggles by translating the manifestos’ constituent letters into musical notes and rests. A video installation featured the manifesto excerpts scrolling on LCD screens as speakers played the resulting atonal piano music, which was notated in four large-scale graphic drawings nearby. The environment resembled a reading room more than a political rally or art gallery: militant as Gaines’s source texts are, they remain primarily texts, due to the machinelike precision of his drawings and the absence of the corporeal or vocal presence associated with most demonstrations.
By contrast, Gaines’s “Night/Crimes” series (1994-95) is both visually compelling and conceptually indeterminate, with each work producing meaning through a montage of images and text, all of tenuous relation. Each piece comprises a portrait of a criminal, a photograph of the scene of a crime and an image of a night sky, along with a caption giving exact locations and times for the crime and the depicted portion of sky. Seen alongside “Notes on Social Justice,” this series opened up welcome constellations of potential meanings, while further probing the fraught relationship between a poetics of chance and a politics of radical engagement.