Workable Identity: Charles Gaines at Paula Cooper
May 3 to June 9, 2018
521 West 21st Street, between 10th and 11th avenues
New York City, paulacoopergallery.com
In an upstairs gallery at Paula Cooper, Charles Gaines has 12 identically-sized, clear acrylic boxes march around the perimeter in an orderly parade. Each box is about six feet high by five feet wide and six inches deep. Both the front and back surfaces are gridded in black with a neat handwritten number and letter system running down the left vertical edge. The front panel of each box has a highly generalized drawing in a particular color of the face of a famous philosopher or writer starting with Aristotle and proceeding in rough historical order to bell hooks. Each filled-in square has a number, counting out from the midline, carefully written on top in a contrasting color. The colored “pixels” are painted on front and back of the clear acrylic giving them a slight visual shiver. Despite the imposing scale of these frontal “headshots”, the generous track size of the grid (about one half an inch) gives these pixelated drawings an extremely abstracted, lo-rez feeling. They immediately call to mind the facial landmarks extracted with widely used facial recognition algorithms.
As the series proceeds, each drawing drops to the opaque panel on the back of the next box as a new one occupies the front. So, as you proceed, the most recent portrait stands out in front of an increasingly dense tangle of all the preceding ones in the series. Whenever a spot in two or more drawings occupies the same “pixel” on the back panel, the colors are carefully mixed to form a new tone. There is some variation in the intensity of the color from pixel to pixel and the unoccupied pixels on the back panel are given a variegated scrubby gray. These minor variations in hue reminded me of old mosaics in the New York subway. The whole thing accumulates in a logical fashion like some big board game, while all the time getting more and more challenging to read. Clarity and confusion are set at war with each other. The snarl of color in back becomes increasingly entrancing as each new outline in front struggles to take its place. Despite their obviously systematic method of manufacture and the corresponding suppression of any personal gesture or expression these pieces nevertheless have a distinctly hand made quality, the product of a considerable amount of time and attention. The aura of the mechanically rendered or the computerized graphic hovers in the background more as metaphor than as method.
The faces are hard to identify without the title sheet, but once you have them in mind, certain individuals do seem to stand out, particularly W. E. B. Dubois in red and Edward Said in a deep aqua blue. They all run toward the history of leftist, liberationist thought with important inclusions of African American thinkers like Malcolm X. The theme is the politics of identity. The second wall with Dubois, Malcolm and Jacques Lacan and the fourth wall with Said, Molefi Kete Asante and hooks are particularly powerful. As the color in the back panel increases in density the areas around the eyes and mouth tend toward rich tonal browns giving the later portraits a slightly scary backdrop. The multiple outlines of hair and beards turn into slightly wild, vibrating auras. Any sense of dry, methodical production in the series is belied by this chromatic crescendo . This points to the possibility that within the world of rational procedure there is still a chance for affective engagement. A person can be moved by the impersonal. And despite the chaos of context there may be some access to another’s identity. To give an analogy: While it’s certain that reading Das Kapital in 2018 is a very different experience from reading it in 1917, nevertheless the text itself retains traces of a living consciousness and to some extent reading that text lets us enter into that individual’s reality. Gaines’s portraits seem to project this somewhat tenuous access to identity onto the accumulating entanglement of history. It literally gets harder to read the individual as the context gets thicker and yet the relief of the individual against that context gets more striking. Identity emerges not as a goal but as a process. Whereas initially Gaines’s piece seems almost didactic, I think, in fact, he is interested in these paradoxes. Somewhere in the space between logic and emotion, system and chance, language and image, simultaneity and history, Gaines sees a void that opens up and that is where he wants to stand. At each moment of history there is the possibility of constructing a workable identity with which to negotiate the paradoxes of the changing environment.
In a second room Gaines shows the preparatory drawings for Faces 1: Identity Politics and two musical scores from a series called Manifestos 3, created by assigning musical notes to the letters of the alphabet in two speeches by Martin Luther King and James Baldwin. The scores play as a video monitor scrolls by the words of the speeches. I do not have the musical knowledge to assess what I heard, but I was struck by the gentle, almost mournful quality of the music lending a quiet counterpoint to the contained fury of two of the most brilliant figures of the 20th Century.