Odd Jobs

Odd Jobs: Charles Gaines

For the past forty years, Charles Gaines has employed system-based methodologies to his artmaking in order to critique subjective expression within art. Influenced by Tantric Buddhist diagrams in the late 1960s, his photographs, drawings, and works on paper investigate how rule-based procedures construct order and meaning. Gaines is also a highly regarded educator at the California Institute of the Arts. He received his MFA from the Rochester Institute of Technology in 1967. In 2012, Gaines exhibited his work in a mid-career survey at the Pomona College Museum of Art and the Pitzer College Art Galleries in Claremont. In 2014, his work was the subject of a survey exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem, which traveled to the Hammer Museum in 2015. Recent group exhibitions include the 2015 Venice Biennale and the 2015 Whitney Biennial. Gaines lives in Los Angeles.

Charles Gaines. Falling Leaves #10, 1978; color photograph, ink on paper. Three parts: 20 × 16 each. Courtesy of The Hammer Museum. Photo: Randy Vaughn-Dotta.

Charles Gaines. Falling Leaves #10, 1978; color photograph, ink on paper. Three parts: 20 × 16 inches each. Courtesy of the Hammer Museum. Photo: Randy Vaughn-Dotta.

Calder Yates: What did you do after graduating from RIT [Rochester Institute of Technology]?

Charles Gaines: I started teaching right away at Mississippi Valley State College.

CY: What was your experience teaching there?

CG: Well, it was pretty terrible. It was Mississippi for Christ’s sake. It was a Black college then and it was run by the state so its Board was all white. During the time I was there, Martin Luther King, Jr., was killed. Jim Crow laws were still in effect. The administration didn’t want students to participate in demonstrations or express their concerns over Martin Luther King. At various times when the students marched, the state [of Mississippi] sent state troopers who began shooting at my students. Fortunately, in that particular situation, nobody was killed. But the school tried to restrict students from demonstrating in the future. So I quit.

Charles Gaines. Numbers and Trees: Central Park Series II, 2016; installation view at Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects. Photo: Robert Wedemeyer.

Charles Gaines. Numbers and Trees: Central Park Series II, 2016; installation view at Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects. Photo: Robert Wedemeyer.

CY: When you quit, how did you avoid the draft? 

CG: I was lucky enough to get another job. I began teaching at Fresno State.

CY: You were making work that relied on systems and rule-based operations, not dissimilar from artists like Sol Lewitt

CG: Just so you know I wasn’t influenced by Conceptual Art. I was influenced by Tantric Buddhist art. I wasn’t involved or interested in exploring the artwork as an idea. I was never abandoning the idea of representation.

CY: But you still position yourself as a project developer or project manager, the way that, say, Baldessari did when he commissioned paintings. Is that fair to say?

CG: It’s more of a theoretical and philosophical endeavor, rather than a labor endeavor [as] the term “project manager” would suggest.

CY: But you still employ people to play out those strategies on paper.

CG: Not then. No, not then. I didn’t have any money. What are you talking about? I invented the word poverty! I had a job but the job paid like shit and so I had nobody to help me. I did that all myself.

Charles Gaines. Numbers and Trees V. Landscape #8: Orange Crow, 1978; acrylic sheet, acrylic paint, watercolor, photograph. 46 5⁄8 × 38 5⁄8 in. Courtesy the artist and Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects. Photo: Robert Wedemeyer.

Charles Gaines. Numbers and Trees V. Landscape #8: Orange Crow, 1978; acrylic sheet, acrylic paint, watercolor, photograph. 46 5⁄8 × 38 5⁄8 in. Courtesy the artist and Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects. Photo: Robert Wedemeyer.

CY: This was when you were teaching at Fresno and Cal Arts [California Institute of the Arts]?

CG: Yeah, I would bring in somebody once in a while, if I got an idea that was really too big for me to do. I would hire somebody temporarily. But no, all that work was done by me.

In the last decade or so the market has become very interested, so that puts demands on the studio. There’s a certain acceleration so that, in order to do the work, I need to hire the people. For a show in ’79 in New York, it took me a year and a half to do one piece. So now I do several shows a year and it’s impossible for me to keep that kind of schedule up without help. I’ve got to have help.

CY: So with your investigations into systems, is that at all complicated by the—

CG: No, it hasn’t. Let’s say you’re a scientist and you’re involved in research. You would have several people in the lab working with you in order to accomplish as much as you can. So a particular scientist can do it all himself or herself, but it would take them five, six, seven times as long. So since I was working within a strategy of making that was not reliant on my subjectivity, I could share the labor of making these things with others.

CY: So, you’ve only taught, is that right?

CG: Well yeah, I was in situation where I was out in the world and I had to find a way to make a living while I tried to make art. I immediately found a way to make a living through teaching. I took a couple of unpaid leaves and I did electrical work for a while and carpentry for a while. Plumbing and carpentry.

CY: And did you have any other jobs in between teaching?

CG: No that’s it. I did that and then the rest of the time I taught.

Charles Gaines. Numbers and Trees: Central Park Series II, 2016; installation view at Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects. Photo: Robert Wedemeyer.

Charles Gaines. Numbers and Trees: Central Park Series II, 2016; installation view at Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects. Photo: Robert Wedemeyer.

CY: Much of your experience has been in academia. Do you ever feel like you missed out on what people call the “real world”? Or is that even a perspective you believe in?

CG: No. No. Obviously, I have an international career. I’m in the real world. I mean, I produce everyday. I exhibit all over the world. That’s the world they call the “real world.” The question of teaching, it’s like any job that you would have. What you’re talking about is an experience that happens in students, where what’s taught—some people argue—is unconnected to the real world. Generally I think that’s bullshit.

That idea of art being a place for the exploration of ideas has been overtaken by an idea of art as a profession. It’s a real negative encroachment of capitalism upon the production of knowledge. And art has not always been based on that. And so now it’s become more popular especially among my graduate students to think of art as a career: “You gotta go out and get a gallery, and get a reputation…” They call that the “real world.” I’m calling the “real world” a kind of cancer on the idea of art.

CY: The cancer being…

CG: Art as a career. So people who don’t get galleries, at a certain point, they give up and stop making art. They say, “If I can’t get a gallery, if I can’t sell artwork, then I can’t call myself an artist.” I think that’s stupid.

I see teaching as an aspect of my studio. It’s in teaching that I can explore ideas with pretty smart people. Not the studio. The studio is just a place to work. Teaching is kind of a substitute for the old cafes, the Cabaret Voltaire, where the modernists would get together and argue about ideas. Teaching has replaced that for a lot of people.

CY: It’s funny, it’s almost as if these places have switched for you. You started off teaching as a means of survival and as a way to support your art practice. But now, because of the demand for your work, the studio has become that place of survival, a place just to make money. And teaching is now that place where you have those Cabaret Voltaire moments.

CG: That’s slightly too simplistic. The studio has never changed. The demands on the studio have changed. The studio and the teaching have never been separate, and continue not to be separated. There’s the suggestion that because the studio is making more money, there’s no need to teach anymore. I’m still teaching because that’s not the attitude I have about teaching. The other thing of course is that the art world is a very unreliable place. I don’t base any idea of economic survival on it. It’s not my motivation for being in it. The issue is to try and make interesting work, which exits within a discursive environment where ideas are challenged.

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