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Art review: Charles Gaines at Susanne Vielmetter

October 7, 2011 |  6:00 am

The austere and often confounding work of conceptual artist Charles Gaines makes an appearance in several Pacific Standard Time exhibitions but finds its fullest expression in a solo show of recent work at Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects. Coming at the height of a 40-year-plus career, it is an elegant, rigorous and challenging show, one that asks a good deal from the intelligence of its audience but amply rewards the investment.

Working in the tradition of John Cage and Sol LeWitt, Gaines generates his work by means of complicated, predetermined systems of rules. For “String Theory: Rewriting Bataille,” a series of drawings installed in the gallery’s front room, he rearranged passages from the French writer Georges Bataille using a complex method of his own devising to produce sentences that are grammatical in structure but random in word choice, such as: “Even Eros excuses violent trembling where emptiness must triumph.” 

The result is transcribed in type-like print across large, beautifully executed graphite drawings depicting what appear to be plumes of smoke. The drawings, like the  texts, are seductive but impenetrable, presenting a semblance of poetic content while blocking the viewer at the level of the surface, thus drawing a compelling parallel between the surface of language — words whose meaning is nonsensical or opaque — and the surface of the picture plane.

The show’s other work, “Sky Box,” is a 7-by-12-foot light box that presents a photographic reproduction of passages from four historical texts relating to issues of oppression and social justice. At regular intervals, the gallery lights dim and the bland, academic columns of text give way to a dazzling composite image of constellations in the night sky.

In both bodies of work, as in much of Gaines’ past work, the juxtapositions of image and text are largely arbitrary. It is a pointed tactic but one capable of causing considerable frustration to anyone conditioned to seek out interpretive connections (which is to say, most people), particularly given Gaines’ use of explicitly political texts. In the case of this show in particular, it sets up a perplexing tension between political discourse and something akin to romantic sentiment. When the lights go down and the night sky blazes, is Gaines undermining the political? Or satirizing the romantic?  

The answer, one ventures to assume, is neither. The effect of the juxtaposition is, rather, to introduce an element of dislocation, to carve out a space around the exchanges involved in the construction of meaning and give the viewer room to explore what that construction entails. Here’s where the intelligence comes in. For those willing to sort through what Gaines is doing and why — and the pair of densely written statements he produced for the show do help — the experience becomes an illuminating collaboration. 

 -- Holly Myers

Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects, 6006 Washington Blvd, Culver City. (310) 837-2117. Ends Nov. 5. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

Above: Charles Gaines' String Theory: Rewriting Bataille #10" Credit: Robert Wedemeyer, courtesy of Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projexts