In the Shadow of Numbers

In the Shadow of Numbers: Charles Gaines Selected Works from 1975-2012

Charles Gaines Selected Works from 1975-2012
September 4 - October 21, 2012
Opening Reception:Saturday, September 15, 4-6 PM


The Pomona College Museum of Art is pleased to present “In the Shadow of Numbers: Charles Gaines Selected Works from 1975-2012” in collaboration with Pitzer Art Galleries, Pitzer College. Based in Los Angeles, Gaines investigates the relationships between aesthetic experience, political beliefs, and the formation of meaning. His work over the last forty years has typically employed systems and rule-based procedures to explore how we experience and derive meaning from art. Gaines is often linked with early Conceptual artists who came to prominence in the 1960s questioning subjectivity and traditional formal and material concerns.  However, he identifies more closely with John Cage’s examinations of indeterminacy in both composition and performance and focuses on linguistic tools such as metaphors and metonyms.

“In the Shadow of Numbers: Charles Gaines Selected Works from 1975-2012” represents the first collaboration between the Pomona College Museum of Art and Pitzer Art Galleries, Pitzer College. The exhibition consists of photographs, sculptures, video, and drawings from several bodies of Gaines’s work over the last several decades, including the “Explosions,” “History of Stars,” “NIGHT/CRIMES,” “Shadows,” and “Walnut Tree Orchard” series, among others, presented at the two Claremont College venues. A catalogue accompanies the exhibition and includes writings by the artist, Michael Ned Holte, Ciara Ennis, and Rebecca McGrew. This exhibition is “Project Series 43.”


“In the Shadow of Numbers: Charles Gaines Selected Works from 1975-2012,” represents a significant overview of the artist’s work to date and brings together specific moments from the last three decades of his artistic career.  Including work from the Explosion, Randomized Text: History of Stars, Night/Crimes, Shadows, and Walnut Tree Orchard series, the exhibition unfolds over two campuses and is the first in what we hope will be many collaborative projects between the Pomona College Museum of Art and Pitzer Art Galleries, Pitzer College.

Over the past forty years, Charles Gaines has investigated the relationships between aesthetic experience, political beliefs, and the formation of meaning, employing systems and rule-based procedures to explore how we experience and derive meaning from images, language, and art. Often linked with early Conceptualists who came to prominence in the 1960s, Gaines developed a practice that focuses on issues of subjectivity, as well as traditional formal and material concerns. His identification with John Cage’s examinations of indeterminacy may be seen in his use of metaphors, metonyms, and other linguistic tools.

On view at the Pomona College Museum of Art are several works that bridge the sublime and the documentary, in which night sky imagery is combined with texts or found photographs. The 1994-1995 Night/Crimes series—representing the first of Gaines’s “Disaster Narratives”—explores how emotions can be manipulated by unsettling and traumatic images. A constellation of stars is placed below a photograph of a convicted white man and unrelated murder crime scene, and separated by text identifying the location of both the murder and particular portion of sky. Hinting at the constructed nature of meaning in our society, Gaines provides no further clues; instead he prompts us to solve the “murder mystery” ourselves by finding non-existent connections between the two representations. For the Randomized Text: History of Stars work (2006-08), Gaines pairs photographs of the night sky with textual drawings of randomly-sequenced sentences from Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera and Edward Said’s Orientalism. While the combination radically dislocates and transforms both the texts and the sky images, multiple connections surface, demonstrating the incessant drive to find meaning in the most ambiguous situations.

Skybox I (2011), a large-scale sculptural installation, is a twelve-foot-long light box with photographs of four political texts on its surface. Spanning three hundred years and several continents, these texts combine to present a complex global perspective ranging from oppression and colonization to liberty, democracy, and freedom. As with much of Gaines’s work, Skybox I juxtaposes text with image, which in this case is revealed at regular intervals when the gallery lights dim, making visible LED lights that shine through thousands of laser-cut holes on the sculpture’s surface. The configuration of text and image and the arbitrary nature of their pairing generate connections and unanticipated meanings that encourage a nuanced understanding of the world reflected around us.

Gaines’s series of triptychs, Walnut Tree Orchard (1975-2012), each comprising three panels, links the artist’s works installed at the Pomona College Museum of Art with those on view 1,000 yards away at Pitzer Art Galleries. On display at Pitzer is the fourth and most recent iteration of this larger body of work. The remainder of the series, which as a whole spans thirty-seven years of the artist’s practice, is on display at Pomona. Each triptych consists of a photograph of a solitary walnut tree, leafless and skeletal, followed by two drawings—the first of which traces the image of the tree while the other plots the shape of the tree in numbers. The series is realized as each set charts the previous drawings and photographs of trees using a numerical system. The resulting sequence reflects the aggregate of images methodically recorded over a long period of time while simultaneously conjuring the idea of a healthy orchard that, like this generative project, could endlessly propagate. Equally productive and expandable, Gaines’s Shadows works (1978-1980) uses four panels instead of three—two photographs and two numerically plotted drawings—to map the silhouette of a potted-plant and its shadow turned at intervals of 90 degrees and systematically tracked over the subsequent polyptychs.

Despite Gaines’s rigorous conceptualism, mysterious and emotive elements subtly prevail and intentionally rupture the purity of his formal system. This is clearly visible in the Explosion series (2006-2008). These diptychs feature large-scale drawings of mysterious explosions, painstakingly rendered in pencil, paired with small, framed panels of text that phlegmatically describe various uprisings against extraordinarily cruel imperialist and colonialist powers throughout history. Similarly, Black Ghost Blues Redux (2008), the sole video work in the show, articulates the experience of an oppressed group transcribed through the musical form of another subjugated culture; in this case, a young Korean woman singing the Lightnin’ Hopkins’s blues song, Black Ghost Blues. The emotive rendering endows the lyrics with a universal anguish.

While Gaines emphasizes that the pairings he makes are arbitrary, contemplating the work generates previously unthinkable possibilities and encourages us to construct meaning in unusually complex, sometimes deeply stirring, conditions. Ultimately, this brush with the awe inspiring, whether in considering the sublimity of the universe or the mysteries of death, challenges us to construct a new understanding of what constitutes the rational and the irrational, the logical and the absurd, the everyday and the spectacular.

The exhibition of Charles Gaines’s work is the forty-third in the Pomona College Museum of Art’s Project Series and the nineteenth exhibition at Pitzer Art Galleries, Pitzer College. Pomona’s Project Series, an ongoing program of focused exhibitions of work by Southern California artists, has always relied on the good will and generous support of many individuals and groups, in particular, longtime supporters the Pasadena Art Alliance.

Rebecca McGrew
Senior Curator, Pomona College Museum of Art

Ciara Ennis
Director/Curator, Pitzer Art Galleries, Pitzer College

Essay by Charles Gaines

Shadows and Other Non-Metaphorical Analogies
Charles Gaines

There appear to be two phases in the history of my practice.  The early work involved numbers and systems and the later work (since 1990) involved language.  I had always believed that my interest in structures connected these two periods: numbers as the language of structures in the early work and linguistic structure in the later work.  Recently, I have begun to think that there is a more fundamental connection, perhaps illustrated in my Shadows series.  In these drawings, using numbers, I plotted the shape of plants and the shadows they cast.  Initially the relationship of the two is indexical.  To this extent we are reminded of Plato’s “The Allegory of the Cave,” where prisoners trapped in a cave see in front of them shadows of puppets that are cast by a flame behind them.  The prisoners are unaware of this entire mechanism and regard the shadows as real things.  Plato believed that the prisoners were like people untutored in the life of forms.  As with these prisoners, the reality we think we see is a mere shadow of forms of which we are unaware.

What happens when we see both the shadow and the object?  For one, the indexical relationship is destroyed.  The cause and effect of the temporal space of the indexical sign is disrupted as they occupy a shared space making them coterminous.  What we have is a highlighting of a spatial structure that gives rise to concepts rather than the focus being on the concepts themselves.  Plato’s cave is an allegory, a narrative of metaphoric conflations where the shadow is an index of its object.  So, the question is, what happens if the prisoners see both the object (puppet) and its shadow?  They then occupy the same outside or interpretive space as the reader of the allegory or, from inside the narrative, a space of a yet newer reality.  Is there a third space that both positions occupy that allows a critical investigation of both? 

Contemplating the Shadows series now, I realize this is what I was trying to address.  Instead of trying to highlight the indexical relationship between plants and shadows, I was attempting to create a space where both the plant and the shadow were coterminous.  In the video collaboration I made with Hoyun Son, Black Ghost Blues Redux (2008), it is interesting to think about this context and how Lightnin’ Hopkins’s lyrics to “Black Ghost Blues” (featured in the work) seem to relate to this as well.  Hopkins sings:

Black ghost is a picture, and the black ghost is a shadow tooi

These lyrics suggest that the ghost is both a picture and a shadow.  Although expressed as a metaphor, this image is not a metaphoric mapping because the figures of the metaphor are not what they appear to be at first: ghost and picture and ghost and shadow.  The figures are instead picture and shadow.  Ghost locates the third space where shadow and picture become coterminous, meaning they both equally occupy the same space.  This describes a unique analogy.  Because of this they produce an affecting interpretation of haunting and of race by employing the emotional power of metaphors with the critical capacity of metonyms. This particular form of analogy produces black ghost as an imagined space where both affect and criticality can form multiple relationships.  This new space is outside the usual space or structure of a normal metaphoric conflation.  In my recent work, I continue to critically investigate the relationship of feeling and affect through non-metaphorical mappings.

The basic structure of the metaphor is analogical.  However, I am proposing that the metaphor is not the only site where we find the analogy.  There are non-metaphorical analogies, which I describe as an indirect analogical conflation, where an autonomous space is created within which the autonomous figures of the analogy can co-exist.  This is different from metaphor where one sign is read in terms of another.

In his Critique of Pure Reason, Immanuel Kant argued that we form concepts by comparing different things (mental images) in order to find their similarities, reflect on these similarities (an act of a unified consciousness), and finally form an abstraction (a separation from the mental image) by segregating out all differences.  Kant says, “Concepts depend on functions.  By this function I therefore mean the unity of the act of arranging different representations under one common representation.”ii

This description of concepts permits a way to consider the formation of non-metaphoric analogies in terms of what Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner define as Conceptual Blending.  This is a cognitive process where the structure from two input spaces is projected on to a third space.  The blend is the merging of the two structures.iii  Fauconnier and Turner give an example of a contemporary philosopher who is leading a seminar.  In it he has a fictional debate with Immanuel Kant over Kant’s idea that reason is a priori.  The philosopher counters, speaking to Kant, that reason is a self-developing capacity.  This is a fictional debate that operates in a blended space, an imagined space where it is possible for a contemporary philosopher to have a conversation with Kant.iv

In fact, Fauconnier and Turner describe this as a metaphoric mapping.  In a metaphoric mapping a primary sign is conceptualized according to the structure of an autonomous secondary sign.  For example, in the metaphor “more brains,” the word brains is conceptualized in terms of quantity, a completely autonomous concept.  (Smart people are not measured by the quantity of brains).  This is not a blended space because the structure of the secondary sign is determinative in the reading of the metaphor.  The blended space is different; it is a projection of a third space, the result of a blending of two structures.  The description of this as a metaphor may be more accurate, but I am drawn to the fact that in any example of a blended space it is difficult to determine which sign is primary and which is secondary.

Recently I gave a presentation of my works Manifestos (2008), and Skybox I (2011) in which I argued that in each case I made an analogy between two autonomous systems.  In Manifestos, it was written language and musical notation.  In Skybox I, it was written language and the night sky.  I claimed however that this analogy was not a metaphor.  In Manifestos, I was not drawing an analogy so that the qualities of musical phrasing could be mapped on to words.  Instead I created, as Fauconnier and Turner describe, a blended space from the autonomous structures of text and music.  In this space a music/language correspondence was realized.  The effect of Skybox I was similar, where the structure of pages of text formed an analogy with the spatiality of stars of the night sky, hence forming a blended space where both the sky and the text were coterminous. 

As I indicated earlier, I now believe I was using a similar strategy as early as 1974 (Regressions series) when I began my systems work.  In the series Walnut Tree Orchard (1975-2012), Shadows (1978-80), and Faces (1977-79), I plotted the shapes and contours of various objects and things, such as trees, plants, and facial contours.  In the Walnut Tree Orchard works, for example, I sequentially plotted the shapes of walnut trees in numbers on a grid, starting with a single tree and ending with twenty-six trees.  In this blended space the structure of an orchard (or it could be any grouping of the same type or different objects) and a numbering system produced a blended space where numerically derived silhouettes of overlapping trees were realized.  I now recognize I am investigating a particular type of representational space where both the concept and its object can be considered without assuming that one was imminent in the other.  Not from inside the concept, but from the standpoint of a space, an imagined space, where both the concept and the object are coterminous.  This highlights a spatial structure that gives rise to concepts rather than focusing on the concepts themselves.  Under these terms, analogies can be critically considered, a situation that is not possible with metaphoric analogies.  We can debate whether this is an example of a different type of metaphorical analogy or, as I argue, a non-metaphorical analogy.  But it is a space where I can, within a discursive space, engage both the structure of something and what it means to us.v  

i From “Black Ghost Blues,” Lightnin’ Hopkins, Soul Blues, 1966.
ii Immanuel Kant, in Basic Writings of Kant, edited by Allan Wood, (New York: Modern Library), 2001. p. 55 (A68-9/B93-4).
iii Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner, “Blending as a Central Process of Grammar,” in Conceptual Structure, Discourse, and Language, ed., Adele Goldberg, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 1996, pp. 2-6.
iv Ibid. p. 1.
v For more on metaphor/metonymy and their relation to art, see my essay, “Reconsidering Metaphor/Metonymy: Art and the Suppression of Thought,” Artlies #64.

Essay by Michael Ned Holte

Call and Response
Michael Ned Holte

Dear Charles,

When I first set eyes on the checklist for your exhibition at Pomona and Pitzer, for whatever reason I was immediately drawn to the few works I had never seen before—the two examples from the 1978-1980 Shadows series and the 2008 video Black Ghost Blues Redux. The Shadows works, as far as I could tell from the pixilated thumbnail images, had an immediate relation to other series in which you’ve systematically translated photographic data into drawings plotted on hand-drawn graph paper—work from the 1979 series Faces: Men and Women and the 1981 series Motion: Trisha Brown Dance were already familiar to me, and these seem to bracket the Shadows pieces quite neatly. As eager as I was to see the Shadows works, I have to admit I was most curious about the work on the checklist for which there was no thumbnail—a video, titled after a Lightnin’ Hopkins song no less.

Black Ghost Blues Redux was made in collaboration with the artist Hoyun Son, who also appears in the video. The video was made for a thematic group exhibition at Project Row Houses appealingly titled “Thunderbolt Special: The Great Electric Show and Dance (after Sam Lightnin’ Hopkins)” (2008). It might be an outlier in your body of work, but perhaps all the more telling for that reason. The set-up of the video is incredibly simple. Hoyun Son is framed in medium close-up against a “blank” backdrop (pinkish-white to my eyes), and smokes a cigarette as the eponymous Lightnin’ Hopkins song plays. “Black ghost, black ghost, will you please stay away from my door,” implores Hopkins. “Yeah you know you worry po' Lightnin' so now, I just can't sleep no more…” She listens, smokes, bobs to the music. When the recorded version of the song ends, she sings it a capella. Compared to Hopkins’s assured, even relaxed delivery (somewhat belying the anxiety of his lyrics) structured by the insistent rhythm of his guitar, Son’s unaccompanied version is notably urgent, raw—and surely this is part of the point: A female, Korean voice embodying (if that’s the right word) the lyrics of an African-American blues musician is bound to point to difference. And as you recently told me in your studio, there has often been tension between Black and Korean communities, yet both cultures recall a complex history of colonialism, slavery, and enculturation. In light of this, Son’s singing of Hopkins’s lyrics suggests an impossible, or at least paradoxical, embodiment.

While thinking about the video, and re-watching it, I’ve come to understand the structure as one of “call-and-response,” which is frequently found in the blues and gospel music, and traced to oral communication in sub-Saharan Africa. In the video, the call is Hopkins; the response is Son. I first encountered the idea of call-and-response around twenty years ago when I read LeRoi Jones’s Blues People for a remarkable and formative undergraduate class titled “Black Music in America.” Like many examples of the blues utilizing a call-and-response form, the Hopkins song makes considerable use of doubling in repeating lines. But, doubling takes place within the lyrics, too:

Black ghost is a picture, and the black ghost is a shadow too
Whoa black ghost is a picture, and the black ghost is a shadow tooi

I was particularly struck—I’m tempted to write “haunted”—by these lyrics, the play of doubling and complex chain of representation they set in motion with the idea of “black ghost as a picture, and as a shadow too.” It’s a chain of signification that paradoxically summons the invisible, the intangible, using one system of representation (language) to point at the unresolved complications of another (the visible).

Of course I was also struck by the unexpected proximity of these lyrics to the Shadows works you made nearly three decades before the video. Shadows XI, Set I comprises four panels: A photograph of a houseplant, a photograph of the plant’s shadow, a drawing plotting the shape (of the silhouette) of the plant in tiny numbers on a hand-drawn graph, and a drawing plotting its shadow. For each of three subsequent sets, the plant is rotated in increments of 90 degrees, photographed along with the resulting shadow, and plotted, with each turn producing an increasingly dense palimpsest of indexical representation. Bluntly factual and methodical, the drawings eventually reveal the system in play. What we—meaning the viewer—are to make of this system, once “understood,” is more difficult to ascertain.

“I am not interested nor do I have any intention whatsoever to whatever connection you make between an idea and a feeling,” you once wrote. “There is nothing in my approach that tries to determine from my own interest what type of feeling you have.”ii Likewise, you told me that you were “interested in how remarkably meaningful things could be produced in situations that didn’t use the apparatus of subjectivity.”iii Indeed, the Shadows works—seemingly aloof and quasi-scientific—seem to reflect this.

This leads me back to music, and I’m not just thinking about Lightnin’ Hopkins but also your abiding interest in the field as a fan and as a musician. You’ve frequently framed John Cage’s notion of indeterminacy as a major influence on your approach to art making, and of course indeterminacy is generally understood as an important generative tactic that removes or dismantles the composer’s subjectivity—creating a “firewall” (as you’ve called it) between the production of music and its reception, the feelings the music generates, which as you argue, are a product of learned experience rather than something divine or innate. Your Manifestos work, in which scores generated from four political manifestos are structured according to the alphabetic content of the given texts, clearly follows from Cage’s systematic approach, and particularly his 1979 composition Roaratorio: An Irish Circus on Finnegans Wake.

But, I have to wonder, is Cage your guide when playing piano or the drums, improvising with your friend Terry Adkins, as you often do? Is it possible to quarantine “expressive intent” when you make music as you claim to do in your production of art? Or, setting aside your own participation, is it possible to separate ideology and feeling in, say, the music of Ornette Coleman, who so definitively tied the affect of speech—its emotive qualities, not its words—to the sounds he produced with his plastic alto sax? (And who, moreover, seemingly tied this affect to a larger—by which I mean political and not just personal—notion of liberation?)

What I’m thinking about is the way in which the affect of music so quickly destabilizes those differences. Incidentally, I listened to Nina Simone today. Is it possible to listen to her music and not be moved? Is it possible to listen to music (whether Nina Simone, or Lightnin’ Hopkins, or Gustav Mahler) and not be moved? Maybe so, but most music induces feeling so readily and so suddenly, often overwhelming us before we even register what we’re listening to consciously. Music—even Cage—taps into the irrational, the unquantifiable; it eludes capture. If indeed our feelings are determined by conditioning—nurture, not nature—surely it is not always possible to put a finger on what those conditions might be. What exactly, in my own conditioning or ideology or lived experience, allows Nina Simone to move me? I’m not sure I know, or could ever know.

Now, I do understand you have no desire to deny the viewer’s (or listener’s) subjectivity, only your own role in controlling that individual subjectivity. You’ve staked out a position—and I think it’s an incredibly thoughtful and important one, if idiosyncratic and occasionally perverse—that attempts to overturn hundreds of years of artists attempting to represent subjectivity, generally their own, generally through the use of metaphor. As I understand your argument, metaphor is limited because it is difficult (or impossible) to use it critically. You believe metaphor based on analogy is open to interpretation, and no interpretation can be inherently wrong. Therefore, it lacks critical agency. Metonymy, on the other hand, is determined by communities, not individuals, and therefore offers the promise of critical agency.

But, I think there is often a misperception—even among your admirers—that you don’t use metaphor. This is, in part, what makes the Black Ghost video so intriguing to me: the Lightnin’ Hopkins song is rife with metaphor (“Black ghost is a picture, and the black ghost is a shadow too”—“picture,” “shadow,” and even “ghost” seem to be metaphors here; they must be), yet your use of the song, with the oblique, poetic lyrics of Hopkins impossibly embodied by a Korean woman, suggests a cohabitation of metaphor and metonym, with both as destabilizing agents. And destabilization is your secret weapon, always. “The presence of a subject is essential for the implementation of political power,” you noted in 1993. “Race destabilizes mainstream subjectivity, but in so doing it does not make politics irrelevant, for the destabilization is itself an act of politics.”ivBlack Ghost Blues Redux, in its relatively straightforward manner, seems to enact this complex process, even as it lets loose certain spirits (metaphors, again) that threaten to escape containment and systemization. Then again, ghosts and politics are old acquaintances.
I’m still hung up on something you wrote over thirty years ago: “The art work, the total art work, involves many aspects of myself, not just one, and they all want to participate in the work. But when the work is done they all disappear, claiming ignorance of the whole affair, and documenting alibis.”v This seems to be a candid moment, a big revelation—albeit one about remaining elusive. But it hints at multiple, overlapping subjectivities, which is, needless to say, entirely different than zero subjectivity. Does the statement still ring true for you today?

I don’t mean to put you on the spot. My curiosity about your work—the objects, of course, but also the discourse around them—is genuine and arrives with admiration. I was intrigued the first time I encountered your work a dozen years ago, and my interest has only increased in the intervening years—especially in recent years since becoming your colleague at CalArts, where your rigorous and intensive critique class “Reconsiderations” (“Recon” to the initiates) serves as a right of passage for so many aspiring artists. I often wonder if Charles the teacher stakes out a slightly different or adjacent ideological position—a somewhat more narrowly defined, more rigid position, for the sake of maintaining an important ideological position—than that of Charles the artist. In particular, I’m thinking about Charles the artist who, on occasion, documents alibis, evokes ghosts, and even plays the blues.

You don’t have to answer right away. But please know that if I’m right, it can remain our secret.

Respectfully yours,


i From “Black Ghost Blues,” Lightnin’ Hopkins, Soul Blues, 1966.
ii Unpublished letter by Gaines, 2010.
iii Conversation with the author, January 10, 2011.
iv Charles Gaines, Theater of Refusal: Black Art and Mainstream Criticism, exh. cat. (Irvine: University of California, Irvine, 1993).
v Untitled statement in No Title: The Collection of Sol LeWitt (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Art Gallery, 1981).

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Art After Hours: Charles Gaines Ensemble PerformanceMore >
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