Using Abstraction to Examine Meaning and Perception

By Zachary Sy

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Charles Gaines (American, born 1944), Numbers and Trees, Central Park, Series I, Tree #9, 2016.

Charles Gaines began working with conceptual art and the grid in his Regression series (1973-1974).[1] Uninterested with the emotional and self-expressive aspects of art, Gaines found inspiration in the grids of Tantric Buddhist diagrams. These drawings were not results of the monks' expressions, but are the product of an external Zen-like process. Throughout mainly 1974-1989, Gaines explored this idea in different ways—varying the functions used, or the subject, or the medium. The result is a collection of related but distinct artworks created by Gaines but driven by an external force or process.[2] Later in these series of works, Gaines began incorporating photographs in his process.[3] Through this combination of photography and the grid, Gaines was able to examine the idea of representation.[4] In these artworks, the limitations of photography and representations in general are made clearer, and questions on how objects are represented and the consequences on perception arise. By abstracting recognizable real-world objects from photographs to the grid, Gaines reduces these objects to their fundamental components. With this, the complexities in the understanding and representation of these objects are revealed.

Looking across his various series, one can begin to see the cohesive strategies being employed, and the way they act to reveal complexities in representation. I will first examine Faces (1978-1979) and Numbers and Trees (1986-2018) as they both explore how visual representation can lead to subjective assumptions. Next, I will examine Falling Leaves (1978) and Motion (1981) in how they explore representations of both the physical and non-physical attributes of a subject by taking into account mutability. Each pair contains a series focusing on a human subject and natural subject, one of which is from the earlier period of Gaines' gridworks, while the other one is near the end. Through this, I will be able to consider how this process changes with the subject and the ways it progresses over time.

By directly exploring the results of representation in terms of human faces, Faces (1978-1979) (Appendix A) is more overt in its connection to the social issues of race and the underrepresentation of minorities. Here, Gaines is directly deconstructing the idea of a face and in doing so leads to questions of the role of race in this idea. Each piece in the series follows the same triptych format meant to be viewed from left to right. The first frame is a black and white photograph of a person looking straight at the camera, resembling an ID or passport photo. On the second frame is grid paper on which Gaines plots numbers starting from zero in the center of the page and increasing outwards, with the blank squares forming a basic outline of the subject's face. The third frame inverts the second image such that the outline of the face is formed by the plot of numbers, which is plotted along with the previous faces in the series.

In this process, Gaines chooses a diverse range of people in terms of race and gender as his subject.[5] This is only notable due to the underrepresentation of minorities. Given the diversity of people Gaines would encounter in Fresno where he created these artworks, it would be more unusual if all the photographs were of white males. As a child, Gaines did not understand the reason for racial segregation and the need for difference between people with different skin colors.[6] This idea that differentiation by physical appearance does not make sense is clearly evident in this series. On the second frame, Gaines' removes all traces of race and possibly even gender. As the grid and numbers are commonly thought of as objective and empirical tools, this transfer of the subject from photograph to grid is symbolic of a movement towards the objective from subjective.[7] While still recognizable as a face, all defining features are left out, replaced with much simpler two-dimensional shapes. Even clothes are left out—as not only are clothes not a part of the face, but may also be indicators of social class, race, or gender. With this objective presentation, the viewer has no choice but to accept that any feelings or ideas about race and gender brought about from the first frame if not evident in the second are solely projections of internal biases and presuppositions. This idea is furthered in the third frame, which as Gaines' continues to create more artworks in this series, becomes increasingly complex. Any aspect of singularity and individuality is completely absent. Surprisingly, the result is not completely abstract but rather still recognizable as a face. In fact, the only thing left is the face—not an individual face, but as a general concept. A viewer cannot associate subjective biases into this face, and the biases from individual faces entirely breaks down from the fact that it does not hold when considering the face.

Taking out the human subject altogether, Gaines shows that the same issues of individual bias in universal representation apply to experiences beyond society in the Numbers and Trees (1986-1989) (Appendix B) series, which takes the same general process of Faces and applying it to trees. Numbers and Trees is the last series in Gaines' early works with the grid, and is a series Gaines' would revisit in similar forms decades later in the Central Park Series (2016-2018) (B.1) and Tiergarten (2018). As a result, Numbers and Trees improves upon the format of the previous works, making it more distinct but still related. While in earlier works, Gaines used grid paper and colored pens, Gaines chooses gridded plexiglass and paint instead. The transparency of the plexiglass allows Gaines to compress his process into a single frame as opposed to the progression from left to right in the previous works. Gaines begins with a black and white photograph of a tree which is encased behind a block of plexiglass. Gaines then forms the silhouette of the tree by painting in grids and marking numbers starting with zero in the middle and increasing as the squares move outward. Gaines would repeat this process with the next work in the series with the addition of another tree superimposed on the previous tree.[8]

Both Faces and Numbers and Trees begin with a black and white photograph and end with the combination of multiple figures into one. As with how the individual face disappears and is replaced with the general idea of face, as more and more trees are painted on top of each other the individual trees become nearly indistinguishable to the point of becoming a single unified tree. Numbers and Trees improves on this process by eliminating the middle step and progressing outward rather than from left to right. The effect of this is a work that directly invades the real-world space, creating a contrast between the abstract objectivity of the grid and the subjective experience of the world. The vibrancy of the paint contrasting with the black and white photographs shifts away from the world towards the grid. The artificial plastic plexiglass contrasts with the natural environment depicted in the photograph and separates the painted tree from the actual tree as if restricting nature and the real-world from interfering with this completely abstract representation. Given all these contrasts and separation from the real world, the painted tree—though derived from the real tree—is completely removed from being a tree. Yet, despite the unnaturally vibrant colors and pixelated image, the abstract figure is paradoxically still so clearly a tree. With this, Gaines seems to succeed in breaking down a tree to its fundamental visual form, highlighting how much of human perception and understanding is dependent on mental cognition and personal associations rather than what is purely visual. Though the painted tree is not a real tree, the same associations of natural beauty and magnitude with trees is present in the painted tree.

In these two series, the subject stays static and unchanging. While this still allows for the subject to be represented visually, it is limited to representations of the subject's physical form. This can still lead to subjective assumptions of the subject's actions or movements, but they are not objectively present. In Falling Leaves (1978) (Appendix C) Gaines incorporates time and ephemerality in his representation of a tree, which results in an objective representation of not just the tree's physical form but also its actions. In this series, Gaines photographs the same tree multiple times over the transition from fall to winter until all its leaves has fallen.[9] Next to each photograph is a grid plot of the tree with all its leaves, and next to that is a grid outline of the tree without leaves with vertical lines from the bottom quantifying the amounts of leaves fallen over time.

Unlike the previous two series where Gaines could create an endless number of similar works at any time, the time requirement of Falling Leaves means that it can only be created in the late fall to early winter. Similarly, the second and third frame of the triptych—representing the tree at the start and end of the series—bounds the whole work with a beginning and an end. This allows the tree to not be viewed from a single point in time, but with the context of what it was and what it will be, showing objective change over time. At first this change may not be so evident, but as the series progresses the vertical bars on the third frame continues to increase mapping the loss of leaves and the progression of time. Falling Leaves shows the limitation of perception and evaluation without the context of time. Looking at the photograph in isolation, the tree is recognizable as a tree but there would be no indication that its leaves were falling. Taking into account that the tree's leaves fall as winter approaches reveals more information that is hidden due to the static nature of a photograph. More generally, this shows the ephemerality of representation itself. Falling Leaves proves that the associations and biases that arise from static representations are fundamentally incomplete because it is showing a mutable object in an immutable form. Even the series itself is ephemeral as it only spans a single time period between the fall and winter of 1978.

This incorporation of representations of change and time in Falling Laves is taken even further in Gaines' later series, Motion: Trisha Brown Dance (1980-1981) (Appendix D). Gaines begins this series by photographing a performance by the dancer Trisha Brown every three seconds for one minute. Brown then selects photographs, which Gaines arranges in pairs by chronological order. Each work in the series contains two rows. The top row contains twenty-four small grids where every silhouette of Brown from every photograph is plotted with other silhouettes at random. The bottom row contains two photographs, a large grid with a similar plot of silhouettes as the top row, and an enlarged version of one of the small grids.

As evident in the title, the focus of this series is not necessarily Brown herself, but of the motion of her dance. Brown specifically chose photographs where she is blurred by motion, emphasizing that she is continually in motion as she is dancing.[10] While in Falling Leaves the figure of the tree is still retained as its leaves fall, as Gaines continues to plot more silhouettes over each other the figure of Brown disappears and what is left is only motion. As with Falling Leaves where the second and third frame representing the beginning and the end, the top row of grid paper tracks the progression of the series. The top row appears like a film reel, with each succeeding "frame" showing Brown's movement from one position to another over time. Being one of the last series in Gaines' gridworks era, Motion shows Gaines' confidence in the grid at capturing not just what is visual but abstract and temporal. While motion can be observed it is not tangible and by definition cannot be completely captured by photography, and yet Gaines is able to abstract Brown's dance to the grid and in the process represent motion without showing motion itself.

In all four of these series, Gaines makes use of photography as a first step in abstraction. It is the first frame of Faces and Falling Leaves, the first layer of Numbers and Trees, and the first in the process of Motion. Photography is the most accurate way to represent the real world, as it senses the actual light particles that enters our eyes. Despite its accuracy, photography is still just a representation.[11] As shown in Falling Leaves, photography is limited to a single representation of a single point in time. It is also not entirely objective, as Gaines' is in control of the angle of the camera or the distance between the subject and the camera. Photography's accuracy as a representation and its limitations due to subjectivity and ephemerality makes it a perfect starting point for further abstraction. The viewer is able to easily recognize whatever is being shown in the photograph and so has a reference for examining the succeeding abstractions. Numbers and Trees deviates from this somewhat, throwing the viewer directly into the abstraction. This drastic movement towards the grid paired with the increase in the size of the painted trees in the Central Park Series (B.1) is much more overwhelming than the slower procedural movement towards abstraction in Faces. This makes sense chronologically, as by the time Gaines creates Numbers and Trees, he has created so much works with the grid that he has become more comfortable with it as opposed to his earlier explorations in Faces and Falling Leaves.

Gaines' use of the grid in these series has mostly been reductive in the sense that information is removed. With Faces it is race and social status, in Numbers and Trees the tree itself is removed, In Falling Leaves everything that is not the tree is left out, and with Motion all that is left is Brown's silhouette. With the limitations of the grid in accurate representation, Gaines is testing the ability of association in how much he can remove from the subject while still expressing the idea. In Motion, Brown herself is not necessary in capturing motion and so is removed. Race, gender, social class are all subjective and has nothing to do with what a face is, and so it is not essential in the grid of Faces. This shows how powerful representations are, that despite not being the real object or even close, the viewer is still able to associate the representation with what is represented. Gaines does not seem to have a stand on whether this is positive or negative. In Faces, this association is used to highlight racial and societal biases. On the other hand, Numbers and Trees seems to not have a specific stand in whether it is good or bad for the painted tree to be seen as a tree. Fundamentally, Gaines is showing how there is not a single universal idea of representation.[12] Language and association are dependent on personal experience and biases. While the grid is supposedly objective, that will not stop people from bringing their own personal associations into the grid. Gaines seems to accept this subjectivity later in this era in works like Motion and Numbers and Trees.[13] There is much more personal choice and input in these two series than the series preceding them. In Motion, Brown has control over the photographs she chooses and Gaines has the choice of the silhouettes to include and their arrangement. With Numbers and Trees, the color choices seem much more deliberate in that they are much more complementary, with Tree #9 (B.1) even creating a gradient from the blue towards the red.

Looking at this era of Gaines' work as a whole reveals the complexity and range of representation along with its limitations. Through using the objective methods of the grid and numbers as methods of representation, Gaines attempts to present a completely objective figure not affected by subjectivity. In some ways Gaines succeeds in this goal, but at the same time there is also an acknowledgement of the fact that representation cannot be completely removed from metaphor and association. In the later works such as Motion and Numbers and Trees, Gaines seems less interested in fully objective representations, as he injects more subjective choice into the process. Instead, there seems to be a distinction made between the kinds of associations that should and should not be made. A common theme which spans both his gridworks and later works is the conflict between metaphor and metonymy. Metaphor is association of unlike objects while metonymy is association based on direct relations.[14] The gridworks as a whole make us aware of the kinds of associations we have and whether these associations are based on arbitrary metaphors or true metonymic associations. Metonymy allows us to associate the familiar form of a tree to the actual thing that is a tree. In that way Gaines' works do not eradicate subjectivity, but rather attempts to rationalize it.

[1] Keith, Naima J., et al. Charles Gaines: Gridwork 1974-1989. Studio Museum in Harlem, 2014. (p. 11)
[2] Miranda, Carolina A. "How the Dense Grids of Artist Charles Gaines Took the Ego out of Art." Los Angeles Times, 3 Mar. 2015.
[3] Keith, Naima J., et al. Charles Gaines: Gridwork 1974-1989. Studio Museum in Harlem, 2014. (p. 74)
[4] Syms, Martine. "Problems of Representation" Flash Art, May-June 2015. (p. 66)
[5] Keith, Naima J., et al. Charles Gaines: Gridwork 1974-1989. Studio Museum in Harlem, 2014. (p.14)
[6] Syms, Martine. "Problems of Representation" Flash Art, May-June 2015. (p. 66)
[7] Krauss, Rosalind E. "The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths, Grid". MIT Press, 1986.
[8] Keith, Naima J., et al. Charles Gaines: Gridwork 1974-1989. (p. 136)
[9] Keith, Naima J., et al. Charles Gaines: Gridwork 1974-1989. (p. 84)
[10] Keith, Naima J., et al. Charles Gaines: Gridwork 1974-1989. Studio Museum in Harlem, 2014. (p.128)
[11] Diehl, Travis. "A/The//Grid/Work: Review: Charles Gaines: Gridwork 1974-89" (p. 40)
[12] Syms, Martine. "Problems of Representation" Flash Art, May-June 2015. (p.66-67)
[13] Diehl, Travis. "A/The//Grid/Work: Review: Charles Gaines: Gridwork 1974-89" X-Tra: Contemporary Art Quarterly (2015). (p.45)
[14] Holte, Michael Ned. "Charles Gaines: Form and Content". International Review of African American Art, Vol. 23, No. 3 (2011) (p.35)