Artist Presentation
Charles Gaines



Synopsis by Yoko Kanayama



Gaines began his presentation emphasizing the need for a theoretical framework behind art production. He showed slides of his 1974 Regression Series: a set of 28 drawings utilizing systems of calculation to determine the visual composition of numbers on a page.

The conceptual backbone of these drawings is found in the process of transcription that is designed to realize the numerical relationships that in turn form the image. The sums form the shape, Gaines explained. Form follows mathematical function. The first drawing in the Regression Series maps numerical sums on a grid in order to form a triangle. From this point on, everything is determined by a system. The triangle is made up of cells, each with a numerical value which, according to the system, are multiplied, increasing the number of cells in each subsequent drawing throughout the series. Each new drawing is produced by the previous one.

Gaines is interested in both the image and the system and suggests that they are two discrete elements of the artwork. To quote, They are not the same thing in terms of a work of art, because we respond to the image differently from the way we respond to the system. The system is mechanical production whereas the image is something psychological. By way of example, he associated the numeric shapes with the contours of a human torso. He called this anthropomorphic association a psychological act. This relationship between numeric shape and a male torso has nothing to do with its generative properties. This illustrates the difference between the relationship one has with the process and the relationship one has to the image that has been produced.

At this point, Gaines started to use the word ‘production’ instead of the word ‘system’ in relation to the image. In this sense, ‘production’ refers to the image-making activity, the act of photographing or painting, etc., an aspect of art-making conventionally considered separate from the image and its effect on the viewer. Gaines separated the process from the image/product in order to create a system of production that is not based on the artist. He was not interested in the artist as subject. He developed systems of production to provide a purely conceptual experience, an experience of image unmediated by personal interpretations.

By analyzing the idea of production and how productive forces evolve in the image, Gaines believes that he can locate the artist outside of these forces. This is where Gaines proclaims his artistic practice stands.

Gaines connected his Regression Series to what he sees as the central concern of conceptual art in the 60s and 70s: the artwork is a process through which the subject becomes the nature of what is art in order to create new kinds of meaning. Gaines expands this idea when he says that it is necessary for artists to theorize what art is in order to locate themselves outside of these theories.

To illustrate this argument, Gaines read from his own paper which included the story of a conversation between an Indian wise man and a European. In the story, the European asks the Indian man to explain the location of the earth. The Indian man replies that the earth is on the back of a great elephant, which is on the back of a great turtle, which is on the back of another turtle, and so on into infinity. According to Gaines, the story reveals the European desire to know where things are located. However, attempting to locate the earth reveals the very impossibility of doing so in an absolute manner; its location is always relative and must be stated in terms of contextual relationships. It is the incomprehensibility of the concept of infinity that Gaines put forth as the sublime. He supported this proposition of the sublime by referring to Kant’s assertion that the feeling of incomprehensibility that accompanies the attempt to grasp the totality of life and existence is reflective of the incomprehensibility of the event. Gaines compared the feeling of the sublime to the feeling of being lost in space: The attempt to locate oneself in the vastness of time and space fails again and again. Gaines argues that the failure to locate oneself produces the pleasurable experience of being in …a transcendent space, floating above the anchored realities where one is free to experience the pleasure of the immense and the vast. To quote Lyotard, the sublime experience occurs every time the imagination fails. Gaines argued that people reveal their resistance to the sublime experience by locating a concept in relational terms.

Gaines diagrammed the numeric lines from 1 to zero and 1 to infinity. Here the infinity of numbers is incomprehensible and therefore sublime. While the number ‘1’ refers to or contains all the numbers which follow it, the number zero suggests another infinity, one of nothingness. Gaines proposed that zero is the original by which all other numbers are relationally defined. He directed the interpretation of this example by stressing that zero be understood as a metaphor rather than as a number itself. Zero, then, can be seen as a metaphor for all ideas of origin. By extension, the sublime can be seen as any kind of transcendentalism --the ideas of God, pure form, any concepts not located within the social structure.

Gaines went on to propose that the inability to address the purely conceptual without relational or contextual rationalizations has actually created the concept of transcendentalism, which is a social response to the incomprehensible. Transcendentalism is, then, the social construct by which we attempt to fix in space the unfixable. As an example, Gaines located the concepts of Beauty and Creativity within the social sphere. Members of the audience questioned how these concepts are socially determined and how the concept of infinity allowed for the sublime experience in art. Gaines responded by acknowledging that he had not yet figured that out but he suspects it is through language through metonymy.

Returning to his paper, Gaines cited Marx’s three notions of value in his critique of capitalism: exchange value, use value, and surplus value. These three value systems encapsulate capitalism's determination that an object's value is a function of its exchangeability. An object's intrinsic value is thus incomprehensible and thereby sublime or transcendental. Gaines tied this idea back to his work in the 70s, including the Regression Series, by pointing out that he attempted to collapse the image and its system of production, so that the image is created and revealed by its own production. By trying to include the system of production within the context of the image, the transcendental is revealed in the system of production, not mystified as Inspiration from on high. Gaines ties this back to his work in the 70s such as the Regression Series. This work was an attempt to collapse the image and its system of production so that the image was created by, and revealed through, its own production. Gaines explained that this work reveals the transcendental by including the system of production within the context of the image.

Gaines finished his lecture by showing slides of his Night Crime series which also explores the issue of the sublime. In this series he researched the Los Angeles Times archives to find crime scenes and photographs of people who were convicted of murder. Gaines randomly links these found photographs of murderers with crime scenes. He uses cosmological charts to recreate the night sky that existed at the exact moment that the crime was committed. He inserts text which states the time of the crime and the location, and also the location of the night sky in measurements of latitude and longitude.

This work displaces the moment of the crime by matching it with a criminal who committed another crime, and displaces the criminal subject by matching him with a crime he did not commit. For Gaines this suggests the idea of infinite cycle and repetition, that anybody can be a victim and anybody can be a perpetrator. He also mentioned that in this series there is a metaphorical narrative dealing with the notion of repetition in the context of horrific social events.

Gaines again theorized, The work is entered not from a distance, through the observation of the narrative, but through the mechanics of the work itself, the production itself which is the system of the image. You are entering the work through the language system.

Finally, Gaines concluded his lecture with a reference to Alfred Hitchcock. He explained that Hitchcock uses the narrative structure strategically to produce suspense rather than simply producing an illusionistic reality, positioning the viewer as a spectator observing events from a distance. Thus Hitchcock movies have no sense of the real.



Analyis by Christopher Frederick



When looking at Charles Gaines’ Regression Series, the viewer sees a series of numbers plotted on a grid. Generally, these numbers are in a rectilinear framework, with one or more of the edges of numbers being unjustified to the rectilinear form, creating a ragged edge on that particular side. Graphic designers often refer to this type of edge as a river. The grid and numbers suggest a system of information. Indeed, Gaines follows a mathematical equation to determine the numbers and their placement beginning with a random number selection. While the numbers reflect a systematic process, the process holds artistic significance, not scientific. These numbers are not to be interpreted for any ends other than their own, they refer to nothing but themselves. Gaines utilizes this self-contained system to redefine the terms sublimity, beauty, and form. Rather than rely on classical definitions of such terms, Gaines aims to remove the binaries between the terms in order to demystify the traditionally privileged concept of the sublime.

Gaines’ work attempts to address the experience of a work of art through our affective relations with it. His Regression Series creates an affective experience that has traditionally been defined in classical models through the concepts of expression, form and aesthetics. By stripping away the traditional forms, aesthetics and means of expression from his series, Gaines’ use of systems and graphs points toward the arbitrariness of his artistic procedure. The form of his work is less important than the ideas and motivation behind the form. The ability to have affect lies not only in craftsmanship, but also in concept. Unlike the ‘old masters,’ who use craftsmanship to seduce viewers into a sublime state (loaded with implications of religion and spirituality), Gaines’ cool logic moves away from the impassioned bliss of an encounter with the ineffable toward a sublime experience which can be described. The abstract numeric set confronts the viewer with his/her exclusion from the potentially infinite system. In recognizing an infinity that lies outside the viewer, one realizes his/her inability to fully comprehend, creating a less melodramatic sense of the sublime.

Of course, it is arguable that both the classical understanding of the sublime and Gaines’ redefinition of the term are contextually bound to their historic time period, and that both attempt to address a confrontation with the incomprehensible. While a good deal of intellectuals and academics have abandoned the ideology of transcendental religious experiences as a means to encounter the sublime, there still exists an awe in that which lies beyond the self. Science, math and logic can now be used to conjure a more watered down version of the sublime. In place of the classical intensity lies a self-conscious semblance of comprehension. In this paradigm shift, Gaines replaces the scapegoat of spiritual in-articulation with an articulate sense of displacement.

In Gaines’ ambitious lecture, the time slot allotted failed to allow him the ability to fully articulate his ideas. Just as Gaines had begun to redefine concepts of the sublime for a postmodern culture, the time elapsed, cutting short his synthesis of how the sublime interacts with Marxist use value, and how the linguistic idea of metonymy connects his work with the sublime and the political.