Charles Gaines may be best known for his drawings — which, during his 50-year career as one of the 21st century’s leading conceptual artists, have depicted faces, trees and the continent of Africa in a grid — but the his next project could not exist further from the page. Gaines, whose groundbreaking works have been the subject of more than 70 solo exhibitions and several hundred group exhibitions since 1972, will unveil his first public artwork on Governors Island on October 15. Moving Chains, is an installation of the grandest order: a 100-foot-long sculpture that looks like a shipping container but is meant to resemble the hull of a ship. The piece, a rectangular wooden structure that viewers can walk through, simulates the strong and intense feeling of being trapped in the belly of such a vessel, thanks to nine rows of massive chains that churn over the top of the sculpture.
Gaines, now 78, has spent the last half-century creating works that question subjectivity, the validity of the imagination, and how race affects lived experience. In conversation, the artist is philosophical, rambling and expansive, covering concepts that are hard to wrap your head around until you think about them for a while. This kind of layered thinking, anchored in both the abstract and the tangible, is what makes Moving Chains such a fascinating piece. The sculpture represents three connected themes: American capitalism, born on the backs of enslaved Africans; Manifest Destiny and Colonial Imperialism and Racism. Moving Chains it means shedding light specifically on how these three ideas are intertwined and, indeed, interdependent—and how this foundational financial system continues to shape American life today.
“No one taught in American schools the idea that slavery was a product of imperial and colonial practice,” Gaines tells me, sitting in a cafe inside the Manhattan hotel where he lives (the artist is based in Los Angeles; he works as a professor at CalArts). . “It’s clear to a madman that they’re connected, but he wasn’t taught that way. I think the reason was because of a certain idealism that they wanted to give to these stories and these principles, to refine them and suppress the violence. This was necessary to continue.”
It’s fitting for Gaines to create a work of art based on the idea of systems—he practically wrote the book on systems in art. Back in the 1970s, Gaines’ work took a number of alphanumeric systems and substituted them for fantasy. Instead of dreaming up a face that he would then draw, Gaines followed a grid based on letters and numbers to create art. Moving Chains it is a continuation of this language project, he says. “My interest in this whole project is to synthesize this critique of American history and culture through these three themes, which I think have been misleadingly separated,” he continues. “I’m trying to uncover their connection, which reveals this really problematic underlying story that brought forth the violence that was necessary to build the United States.”
Gaines’ preference for dense theoretical subject matter attracted criticism from the art world in the 1970s and 1980s. To hear Gaines tell it, it feels like his career has been marked by resistance to himself, his ideas, and the that he is black. “Art is just hard,” he adds. “It’s a tough life if you get to a level of success. So I’m not expecting to be greeted by a brass band or anything, but the art world in the 1960s and 1970s was old-school racist—a lot of black artists weren’t properly recognized, and part of that had to do with the fact that their interests were not considered as complex as those of white artists.
“Why was it that when I was showing in the premiere galleries at the time, I couldn’t get any writers or curators interested in promoting my work? In the galleries that showed me, I was considered a background artist. And even when I got the front space, I don’t think I got the full force of the gallery behind it.”
Nevertheless, Gaines continues to work despite any obstacles – systemic or otherwise. Perhaps his tenacity can be traced back to his fertile mind or his insatiable curiosity about the world around him, which he sees more like Nietzsche or Socrates than Monet or Matisse. Be that as it may, the artist remains at the forefront. This year, in fact, he will receive honors from Creative Time (the non-profit arts organization that commissioned Moving Chains) at its annual gala in October.
“Meanwhile, I also have this general philosophy that artists shouldn’t complain about the fact that art is hard,” he says.