Charles Gaines: Southern Trees 26 January – 1 April 2023 Hauser & Wirth New York 22nd Street
Hauser & Wirth presents ‘Southern Trees,’ the gallery’s first New York exhibition with distinguished American artistCharles Gaines and his first in the city since 2018. One of the most important conceptual artists working today, the show explores the evolution of Gaines’s complex practice, demonstrating how he has continued to forge new paths within the innovative framework of two of his most acclaimed series, Numbers and Trees and Walnut Tree Orchard.
The exhibition’s title, ‘Southern Trees,’ alludes directly to the 150-year-old pecan trees pictured in the new works, and symbolically to the opening lyrics of ‘Strange Fruit,’ Billie Holiday’s haunting protest anthem from the 1930s.
The image of the tree has been central to Gaines’s practice since he first began the Walnut Tree Orchard series in the 1970s. In ‘Southern Trees,’ Gaines advances the series using pecan trees photographed on a visit to Boone Hall Plantation in Charleston County, South Carolina––not far from where the artist was born and lived until he was five years old. Presented alongside a key early example from the walnut tree series, eight new triptych works on paper revisit and expand upon this significant original body of work.
‘Walnut Tree Orchard: Set M’ (1977), on loan from the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, pairs a black and white photograph of a walnut tree with two drawings derived from it––an ink outline of the same tree and a grayscale grid that plots all of the trees included in the series up until that point.
The newest series, titled Pecan Trees (2022), begins similarly, with a stark black and white photograph of a tree; yet in the drawings that accompany it, Gaines has filled in the outline of the tree with solid ink and used vibrant watercolors to plot all the previous trees in the final drawing. These successive modifications to scale, colour and background demonstrate Gaines’s theory that while ‘the system has never changed, the outcome is always different.’
This extends to Gaines’s new Numbers and Trees Plexiglas series, which begin with the artist assigning each tree a distinctive color and numbered grid––breaking down the composition into individual cells that reflect the full form of the tree depicted in the photograph on the surface. However, Gaines reverses his signature process in this new series by overlaying the forms of the trees one at a time and in progression on the back panel of the work rather than on the front.
He then brings the photograph to the surface by printing an enlarged detail of the most recently added tree on the work’s Plexiglas surface. This approach brings the tree’s shadowy branches to the foreground, highlighting its textural details and contrasting tones while obscuring the colorful numbered grids painted underneath it. This reversal produces a dramatically different effect, igniting a more somber, yet stirring, reaction to the work as the austere branches, dripping with moss, dominate the picture.
Created through carefully considered systems rather than through the artist’s own imagination or intuition, these new works remove the artist’s subjectivity by following a set of self-determined rules and procedures. The works call into question both the objective nature of the trees and the subjective natural and material human actions that surround them. The fastidious layering process allows Gaines to reveal the differences between the trees’ shapes where the forms do not align. These differences, highlighted by the artist’s systems, suggest the arbitrary nature of other manufactured systems in our society––such as politics, gender, race and class.
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