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Art review: Charles Gaines' 'Manifestos' at UCLA Hammer Museum

February 7, 2011 |  6:00 am

Charles Gaines Manifestos 2008 2
Given the stunning backdrop of recent events in Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan and Yemen -- and perhaps elsewhere in the turbulent Middle East in coming days -- Charles Gaines' exceptional multimedia installation "Manifestos" assumes an unanticipated resonance. Topical  relevance makes the complex suite of digital videos, musical compositions and drawings, executed in 2008, even more compelling than it already is.

Economic frustration, political grievance and authoritarian regimes in the Middle East are not the subject of this stand-out work, which is included in "All of this and nothing," a large UCLA Hammer Museum group show currently on view. Instead, the nexus of art, liberty, social opportunity and personal dignity is.

Like the late Conceptual artist Sol Lewitt, who employed purely logical systems to create mysteriously poetic, abstract wall drawings, Gaines begins with an orderly process. As a viewer watches a predetermined system unfold, step by logical step, moving and elusive wonderment is produced.

The piece is composed of excerpts from four revolutionary manifestos of the 20th century. Each famous document insists, in its own way, on the inalienable right and social necessity of freedom, as well as the personal power inherent in self-determination.

The texts are taken from manifestos issued in Europe by the International Socialist Congress a century ago, and by the student-driven Situationist International in France and Black Panther Party in the United States, during the 1960s' counterculture movement. (The last two coincide with the coming-of-age of Gaines, now 66.) Finally, the 1990s saw the Zapatista Army of National Liberation rock southern Mexico.

It's worth noting that all four social movements were catapulted by modern media. The first coexisted with the invention of the film newsreel. The three more recent ones are impossible to imagine without the intimate reach of television into far-flung living rooms.

So, Gaines' circumspect use of multimedia digital technology in "Manifestos" is apt. The excerpts appear as texts scrolling up sequentially on four thin flat-screen televisions, placed side by side. They stand on chest-high minimalist pedestals built from medium-density fiberboard. The technological is held aloft by the proletarian.

Charles Gaines Manifestos 2008 3 The format of scrolling video-text harks back to an early masterpiece of the genre: Richard Serra's 1973 work, "Television Delivers People." As we saw in the streets of Cairo last week, that sentiment is certainly true -- and in ways that reinterpret Serra from nearly 40 years ago.

The four texts that scroll by on-screen in Gaines' work alternate, from left to right, between white-on-black and black-on-white. Once the sequence has finished, all four begin to scroll in concert.

And here, "concert" is the operative term.

Gaines has composed a musical score for each manifesto. He translated the texts into musical notation using letters of the alphabet that correspond to musical notes. The scores appear as framed, five-foot-tall sheet music, carefully drawn in pencil and installed around the room.

The music is as orderly, systematic and unromantic as everything else in the piece. Forget the stirring, soaring sentiment of national anthems: Reliance on a rigorous system removes individual artistic taste and flights of fancy from the equation. Oddly egalitarian, the system puts the artist and the audience on equal footing.

As each text scrolls by on the television screen, flanking digital-stereo speakers play an exquisite recording of a piano quintet performing the accompanying music. Because many of the texts' letters,  plus all the spaces between words, are noted as rests, Gaines' musical tempo is slow and stately.

The scrolling on-screen text is easy to read -- "we want freedom," "we have been denied the most elemental preparation," "enough is enough," etc. -- while the piano and strings assume an almost melancholic dignity. There is no jarring cacophony.

Even when all four texts begin to scroll at once, with the four musical accompaniments layered on each other simultaneously, the music is surprisingly lovely. The complex concert is a wistful, even somber hymn to human struggles -- to dreams of equality that are an on-going process, not lost causes.

One reason "Manifestos" works so well is that it does not advocate for specific texts. Gaines may or may not subscribe to explicit claims made in any or all of them, but the piece considers a manifesto in larger, more expansive and wholly flexible terms.

Charles Gaines Manifestos 2008 Rather than narrow doctrine, it's a public declaration of motives and intentions. As the music plays, who can argue with the demonstrated value of  freedom, adequate preparation for life and the mitigation of misery?

"The narrative of serial art," Lewitt once said, "works more like music than like literature." Gaines' "Manifestos" takes that idea to heart. The installation makes actual music out of a serial reading of powerful literary statements.

Against the courageous background of noisy tumult on the streets of Cairo, Alexandria and Suez, being experienced elsewhere around the world as bursts of text across computer monitors and smart-phones and chaotic images on television screens, Gaines' imposing, impressive video-music strikes a deep and powerful chord. In music, a movement is a self-contained section of an extended composition; and, this work avers, so it is for social movements too.


'All of this and nothing,' UCLA Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Westwood, (310) 443-7000, through April 24. Closed Monday. www.hammer.ucla.edu

Recent and related:

Charles Garabedian, Chinese Mr. Hyde, 1975. Art review: 'Charles Garabedian: A Retrospective' at Santa Barbara Museum of Art

Egyptian Museum -- and King Tut's mask -- near focus of Cairo protests

Art review: 'Bearing Witness: Daniel Heyman,' Laband Art Gallery, LMU

Glenn Beck's zombie art scandal


--Christopher Knight

Photos: Charles Gaines, "Manifestos," 2008, multimedia. Credit: Brian Forrest / UCLA Hammer Museum

Comments () | Archives (13)

You make Gaines' work come across as nostalgic. You get Egypt et al. into the mix: but when are you going to focus on MOCA censorship, which is still the most explosive ongoing "anti-event"?

Henry: "In music, a movement is a self-contained section of an extended composition; and, this work avers, so it is for social movements too." That's the opposite of nostalgia.

This has nothing to do with music or poetry, no contempt art does. Music is melody, harmony and rhythm, That is line, color and structure in visual art.Thing not taught in your beloved academies. And music evokes emotions, not pseudo intellectual literary verbiage of political ideas you have absolutely nothing to do with.

Stop being effette voyeurs, get out and actually DO something.
Talk is cheap, but apparently in video it is glorified plagiarism, er, appropriation..

Try reading some history books and really learn something, and then, get out into our city of multiple cultures, one you so fearfully scorn.

Save the Watts Towers, tear down the myopic Ivories.

the analogy between music and a social movement is just that: an analogy, used by critics forever to aestheticize. so far as i can tell, deep aestheticization of the non-aesthetic is an instance of nostalgia, in and of itself.

Speaking of Nuestro Pueblo, why does the NY Times have this on the front page, though not in in its art section, and you have nothing?

Backs up everything I have said. The artworld sucks, you a re weak, irrelevant, and hate mankind.

art collegia delenda est

Donald Frazell: It is irresponsible to pass judgment on a work of art you have not seen.

Donald Frazell: Regarding your Watts Towers question, it's probably because we did four stories on the issue last year. (As the New York Times story notes: " 'We Angelenos have done a pretty poor job of showing our love for one of our greatest treasures,' Hector Tobar, a columnist for The Los Angeles Times, wrote last year." ) Very glad to see the NYT now getting on board

Dude, its video. And the manifestos are easily accessible. Syncronized monitors is as much a art as syncronized swimming is a sport.

It simply isnt art at all. may be nice ins some history museum, but look up the definition for art before the art academies modifed it to be conceptual nonsense as well. It aint. Humans aint that dumb, and our history no that irrelevant.

And like I wrote before, LACMA has and will continue to do nothing about the Watts Towers. LAs greatest work of creative art, NOT folk art. Look up that definition too. If you grew up in LA and Have never been there, you are no artist.

You were not at the meting at UCLA, I was, and am the one who broke their cover story about either the Getty or LACMA ever having done or going to do anything. Its been 50 years, they had their chances. You haven't done much more than LACMA, but any story is something, and the DCA was a dismal failure.

The story here is that LACMA is not trusted. No one affiliated with Nuestro Pueblo believes a word, they have done nothing. And will commit to nothing, using the Towers as a PC PR story for their own fund raising. The only way to get them to fulfill their bargain is to put pressure on them. Come on now lil artistes, time to do something both useful to the community, and about real art. Not your own isolated lives.

art collegia delenda est

Mr. Knight: end of discussion on analogy, which is a form of the refusal to think?
(cf. Kenneth Burke). In any case, it's too bad Frazell's comments are so often out of control, aka ranting. but i know where he's coming from--a knowledge of the shameful cherry-picking of art for public consumption.

I am tired of "civilized" speek" aka PC pablum. There is no "dialogue" in the arts anymore. In the 50s arguments raged about what art was and how it fulfilled human need. In the 1800s it was used by political parties of left and right, not just the right agaisnt a feeble left. Art stayed out of it, or it becomes propaganda, aka Public Relations. But arguments raged and out of the forment brewed up intense views of life, of our place in it, and expressIVE of who We are as a species.

The arts have been pacified, neuteured, castrated, and at the service of its masters, the patrons who use clowns such as Deitch to placate their own twisted desires for control and power and seperation into an elitist caste. LMAO!

Only one other person at the UCLA meeting, an older lady just before me, asked a relevant question, the rest feel good stuff to keep things quiet and calm and not rock the boat. The boat must be rebuilt, and therefore, sunk first. It has gone too far for repairs. Everything rots, this is why creative art exists. To make afresh, to renew, to give vigor to society, not meekly sail along til the keel bursts. It has.

Academicism is always evil, it is for career and personal aggrandizment, not servicing a need of humanity. A role as great as that of farmer, soldier, hunter and builder. But not more so. We have a job to do, We have failed. For it is always about Us, never I. And never They. Fine artists can service the whims and desires of the wealthy. Creative artists bind us as one, seek to create the mythologies of a common humanity, explore the world we live in, not stuck in some sterile white studio with no knowledge beyond the colorless, souless, myopic Academies. .

Nuestro Pueblo did this, it is a great work of Creative Art, not folk which is
"Folk art encompasses art produced from an indigenous culture or by peasants or other laboring tradespeople. In contrast to fine art, folk art is primarily utilitarian and decorative".
That describe's Contempt art, which is for the indigenous culture of the effette and nouveau riche. But by their own weak children to keep them out of trouble and tamed. Also known as Fine Art, though that also used to be before the Conceptualism idocy took over being far easier to teach and therfore take money's for a bought degree, decorative arts.

Nuestro Pueblo is far from Folk. Just because the man didnt have the money,but had the talent and independence and moxi(Juevos) to build his own from what he had seen of the world, which was more than isolated rich folks ever do. That doesnt mean it wasn't Creative Art.

Use your eyes, and feel and think and live through them. He split his colors bits into piles and used them as with a brush, constructively, and as a living groups of sculptures. The Towers are animated, and the life is in walking through them a spiritual place meant for religious ceremonies. 80% of its power is within 20' of the ground, it cannot be seen and felt from the outside.

It is a world unto itself, reflecting who we are. Far greater than Kurt Schwitter's Merzbau. But since Mr. Rodia never bought a MFA or in the proper art history books(being a real history major, that is a mockery of the word) he is ghettoized into "Folk" . When fools like Hirst and Koons are idolized and presented as Artistes, when truly just Contempties. Jesters to amuse their masters.

Those with strong souls are humbled and lifted when walking through their power. My wife cried when she first went through them. The greatest work of creative art in LA, ignored, from the fear of weak children and investment mania of their parents and wealthy patrons,. Can't make money in Watts. Though could revitalize and enrichen an entire neighborhood, things artistes always claim to want to do and actually achieve, when they only pad their own nests. Nothing is more self absorbed and childish than the current artscene.

And so, as St Paul and some guy named Obama said.
It is time to put aside childish things.

art collegia delenda est
This is a call not to arms, but tools. To destroy and build upon our true common humanity, not the rotten foundation of avarice and vanity.

This work brought tears to my eyes.

Frazell, can you knock it off with calling things "effete" as a way of deriding them? Your homophobia and misogyny is disgusting.


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