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Clarity in every crisis

Charles Gaines probes larger-than-life phenomena to explore the nature of human truth and understanding.

July 29, 2007|Sharon Mizota | Special to The Times

CHARLES GAINES is drawn to disaster. In recent years, the Los Angeles-based artist has created works that explore our perceptions of crime scenes, explosions and airplane crashes. His latest installation, on view through Sept. 1 at LAXART in Culver City, tackles a familiar Southland catastrophe: smog.

"Greenhouse" is a microcosm of the city in an 8-by-12-foot wood and Plexiglas structure. A computer-controlled system of multicolored lights shines down on a satellite photo of the L.A. basin; each color represents a different airborne pollutant. If regional air pollution levels are low, the lights get brighter; if levels increase, they grow dim. Every 15 minutes, the computer receives data from a website that records local air quality and the structure fills with fog, diffusing the lights in a cloud of haze.

While the installation is a high-tech dramatization of environmental degradation, it is also part of Gaines' ongoing investigation into how we comprehend all phenomena, not just moments of crisis. "My interest is not to necessarily be an agent in changing global warming," he says. "Although I would love for that to happen, my interest is to produce a certain kind of understanding of the role that ideology can play in limiting your thinking."

For Gaines, cataclysmic events strain our powers of comprehension. And by rendering us speechless, they show us the limits of our ability to make sense of the world. Gaines is interested in the gap between visceral experience and the words and theories we use to describe it.

One of his best-known works, 1997's "Airplanecrash Clock," depicts a catastrophe on a small scale. Hoisted above a model of a fictional metropolis (a mishmash of iconic buildings from different cities), a toy airplane on the end of a long pole descends at regular intervals into a trap door in the street. After each "crash," we hear screams, and the door flips over to reveal the plane's wreckage. The work turns tragedy into a repetitive, mechanical event, much like the repeated media footage of planes crashing into the World Trade Center towers on Sept. 11, 2001.

"The piece was done before 9/11, but it felt eerily prescient." says Shelly Bancroft, co-director of New York art center Triple Candie, where Gaines had a retrospective in 2004. By calling attention to the ways in which disasters are represented, Gaines asserts that our understanding of events is always a particular construction of language and images rather than objective truth.

Diligence free of doubt

AT 63, Gaines, who has been a faculty member at CalArts since 1989, is soft-spoken and dignified, exuding a confidence that reflects the determination with which he has pursued his artistic and intellectual interests. For more than 30 years, he has maintained an active exhibition and teaching career, even when his highly conceptual work wasn't always in step with art world trends. "By the time that I got to know Charles, the type of work that he was making sort of lost its appeal," says artist Edgar Arceneaux, a former student and collaborator of Gaines. "But he continued to make that work, and he continued to evolve."

Now it seems the art world is paying attention again -- in June, Gaines was included for the first time in Italy's Venice Biennale (on view through Nov. 21). His installation there includes "Airplanecrash Clock" as well as the latest iterations of two ongoing series of drawings, "Explosion Drawings" and "History of Stars." The "Explosion Drawings" are highly detailed, large-scale graphite images of blasts resulting from bombs or crashes. Stripped of any sense of place or time, each drawing is accompanied by a smaller "appendix": a separate image of hand-lettered, alternating sentences about bombs, missiles and war from two or three sources unrelated to the explosion portrayed.

"History of Stars" creates similar gaps between image and text by combining shots of the night sky with intermingled sentences from two books of personal significance to Gaines: Gabriel Garcia Marquez's magical realist novel "Love in the Time of Cholera" and "Orientalism," by post-colonial scholar Edward Said. In a 2006 statement, Gaines wrote, "By arbitrarily combining content and expression, I want to show that the truthfulness of any expression

This blend of conceptual approach and political investment was influenced by Gaines' early experiences with racism in the art world of the '70s. "I had to fight my way into graduate school," he recalls. Upon being rejected by the Rochester Institute of Technology in upstate New York, Gaines, who grew up in Newark, N.J., traveled to the school and made a personal appeal for admission. He was the first black student in the Institute's master of fine arts program, from which he graduated in 1967.

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