The place is 1940s Charleston, and a young Charles Gaines asks his mother, “What happens when I die? Will I come back as a bird?” Even as a three-year-old, the African American conceptual artist says, his identity was influenced by outside forces, including segregation. In Charles Gaines: Gridwork 1974-1989, an exhibition opening at the Hammer Museum on February 7, that idea of an imposed system is realized in the grids that Gaines places under photos of trees—a favorite subject—the twigs and branches then reproduced as tiny numbers within the lattice of lines.
It’s a theme he continues with today, finding inspiration in the writings of Malcolm X, Ho Chi Minh, and Gerrard Winstanley, a 17th-century English activist who questioned why nobility should be the sole owners of land. An instructor at CalArts since 1989 and a longtime Mount Washington resident, Gaines says, “I’ve always had an interest in philosophy and critical thinking, and as a child living in the South during the Jim Crow laws, I had deep suspicions about rules created in response to how people looked.” Gaines didn’t receive his first show at the Studio Museum in Harlem until 2014, an acknowledgment, finally, of his role in the black arts movement. A year later that same exhibition, which includes never-before-seen works that were believed lost, comes to his adopted home.
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The Hammer joins with the nonprofit Art + Practice to mount Charles Gaines’s Librettos: Manuel de Falla/Stokely Carmichael, which opens February 28 at the A+P space in Leimert Park. “I’ve taken two unrelated documents and formed an ornate pastiche,” says Gaines of the 1911 de Falla opera, La Vida Breve, and a 1964 speech by the Black Panther leader. “It’s a fictional relationship, but that can be a major way in which meaning is made.”