Charles Gaines: Multiples of Nature, Trees and Faces; Hardeep Sahota: Bhangra Lexicon – review

Hauser & Wirth, London; Yorkshire Sculpture Park; both online
Photographs of trees obscured by painstaking mathematical sequences somehow add up in Gaines’s gorgeous abstractions

The visions of the California artist Charles Gaines (b.1944) are as glorious as they are rigorously principled. He takes vast monochrome photographs of what is inherently beautiful – the human face, the spreading boughs of a tree – and then mounts them behind Plexiglas screens. Each screen is partially overpainted with tiny coloured squares, and each pixel bears a number. It is the strangest configuration to behold.

Gaines is about as renowned in America as a systems-based conceptual artist as he is undervalued here. The subject – though not the questioning content – of his work over almost half a century has ranged from walnut trees to music and the movements of the American dancer Trisha Brown. No matter how conspicuously stringent his methods, however, a certain poetry always sings through.

Take the old English tree photographed by Gaines in Dorset last year, its great arms reaching against a high white sky. The dark branches are visible behind any area of unpainted Plexiglas and even, to some extent, as expressive shadows behind the many-coloured squares. And then come the numbers, in black, like calligraphic echoes of forest twigs behind them; although this association may of course be entirely personal and romantic.

For what strikes anyone who has seen Gaines’s art in the flesh (and even online, where Hauser & Wirth launched this show last week, until the gallery can reopen after lockdown) is supposedly the exact opposite: that it is meticulously organised according to certain underlying algorithms or rules. The numbers say this as much as the colours, with their serial permutations and progressions. Yet for all the emphasis on systems, connecting Gaines back to John Cage and Sol Le Witt, the work is overwhelmingly gorgeous.

Numbers and Trees: London Series 1, Tree #4, Devonshire Row, 2020 (detail) by Charles Gaines.
Numbers and Trees: London Series 1, Tree #4, Devonshire Row, 2020 (detail) by Charles Gaines. Photograph: © Charles Gaines / Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth

Partly this is to do with colour. Anyone familiar with Gaines’s black-and-white works will know their extreme austerity. Even the palm trees of Los Angeles, where he lives, lose some of their exotic frivolity when depicted through one and sometimes two layers of Plexiglas: gridded, analysed, distanced. Whereas the trees in this exhibition take their colours from the natural world – cobalt from the skies, the yellow and orange hues of autumn and a whole springtime of different greens.

But the titles have their own lyricism too: Idol Lane, Fetter Lane, Devonshire Row; a sense of place deriving from the artist’s English visit. You may wonder about the underlying principles, sometimes to do with planes, positions in the grid, mathematical formula and so on; but it is hard to deduce an obvious or logical connection between the natural form and the Plexiglas abstraction. The relationship, as with the grids of Mondrian, feels more poetic and transcendent.

Numbers and Faces: Multi-Racial/Ethnic Combinations Series 1: Face #11, Martina Crouch (Nigerian Igbo Tribe/White), 2020.
Numbers and Faces: Multi-Racial/Ethnic Combinations Series 1: Face #11, Martina Crouch (Nigerian Igbo Tribe/White), 2020. Photograph: © Charles Gaines / Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth

That certainly seems true of the many faces in this show, part of an ongoing series based upon people who identify as multi-ethnic. Here is a portrait of Martina Crouch, who is “Nigerian Igbo tribe” and “white”, according to the work’s title. Her photographed face is there behind the Plexiglas screen, painted with overlapping contours that seem to describe the people of the past gathered together, like a ghostly inheritance, in her unique presence. Green, red, yellow and turquoise, all these coloured squares surround her with glowing halations.

The principles of production here are just as detached and impersonal (and hard to grasp) as ever. Gaines once told an interviewer that for all the formulas involved, he actually had no particular interest in maths. And in the case of human faces, the restrictive rules may have more profound associations for an African American artist brought up under the appallingly arbitrary Jim Crow laws of the deep south.

The portraits are much larger than life; and perhaps their pixellations might remind the viewer of Chuck Close, or even Seurat. There is both estrangement and wonder in their scale, and method. And this estrangement is increased by the physical gap of several centimetres between the photographic substrate and the glassy surface, as well as the visual distance between realism and abstraction.

Watch Charles Gaines: Generative Systems

What is objective and what subjective in art? Gaines sets off this constant to and fro in his art, between what you see, what you think and what you feel. And all his operations are openly declared. You can go backstage, as it were, and squint at the founding photograph. You can get up close to the numbers and study the sequence, if you really must. But with his tree works, in particular, all the separate layers seem to accumulate into something more than the original image: a tree greater than the sum of all these parts.

There is a lovely parallel between Gaines’s serial progressions and Hardeep Sahota’s Bhangra Lexicon, online at Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Sahota is a Huddersfield-based dancer, an expert, a devotee. He founded World Bhangra Day in order to celebrate the sensational beauty of this form of dance and music, originating in the farmlands of the Punjab. And now he has aspired to identify some of the many hundreds of separate movements that gather into this phenomenally energetic dance.

Performers holding coloured lights in the sculpture park at twilight were shot using long-exposure photography. Films were also made of their movements. Think of sparklers in the dark, their after-images coruscating in the air, and then consult these photographs for their sensational beauty.

Hardeep Sahota, Bhangra Lexicon. Rashmi Sudhir, Mohiniattam - South Indian classical dance style
Hardeep Sahota: Bhangra Lexicon at Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Photograph: Tim Smith

Calligraphies in scarlet, gold and purple unfurl across the landscape. A standing man moves one arm and unleashes a golden bird. A twirling figure sets up green spirals and whorls. Sometimes you can see the dancers’ feet, sometimes only the luminous patterns they inscribe in the darkness.

To describe the effects as spectacular would be true, but an understatement. What makes these high-speed movements, frozen in low-speed exposures, so especially striking is not just their firework brilliance. It is that the motion of these bodies forms a kind of human script, written on the twilight, a script that in its most abstract form resembles the tracing of heartbeats and blood pressure on a monitor: the electrifying signs of life.

  • Charles Gaines: Multiples of Nature, Trees and Faces is at Hauser & Wirth, London, until 1 May. Gallery currently closed; exhibition viewable online at hauserwirth.com

  • Hardeep Sahota: Banghra Lexicon is online at ysp.org.uk

Contributor

Laura Cumming

The GuardianTramp

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