Charles Gaines’ Colorful Pixelation of Southern Trees

Artworks can provide an immediate rush of joy on first impression, or slowly build in appreciation over multiple visits. Charles Gaines’ current exhibition at Hauser & Wirth Gallery in New York does both: it is breathtaking from the moment you walk in, and offers new discoveries and deeper fulfillment with every subsequent visit. The artworks are individually brilliant while they also connect to each other in a series that invites you to get closer while extending your peripheral vision.

Charles Gaines installation at Hauser & Wirth, 5th floor west wall with visitors

Installation view, ‘Charles Gaines. Southern Trees,’ Hauser & Wirth New York 22nd Street

The exhibition’s title “Southern Trees” references the 150-year-old pecan trees shown in the 17 new works – all photographed on a visit to Boone Hall Plantation in Charleston County, South Carolina, not far from where the artist was born.

Charles Gaines installation at Hauser & Wirth, 5th floor east wall with visitors

Installation view, ‘Charles Gaines. Southern Trees,’ Hauser & Wirth New York 22nd Street

Charles Gaines installation at Hauser & Wirth, 2nd floor with visitors

Installation view, ‘Charles Gaines. Southern Trees,’ Hauser & Wirth New York 22nd Street

On the 2nd floor, 8 new works contain 3 elements: a black-and-white photograph of a pecan tree, a black silhouette of that tree on gridded paper, and a pixelated watercolor translated from the silhouette.

Charles Gaines installation at Hauser & Wirth, 2nd floor with first work

Installation view, ‘Charles Gaines. Southern Trees,’ Hauser & Wirth New York 22nd Street

The exhibition crescendos as each work builds on the last. For example, the first watercolor seen in the gallery is a single tree from start to finish (in blue), followed by the second work in the exhibition that adds a tree (red) to that equation. A new tree is presented in the photograph and silhouette alone, but is added to the first tree in the watercolor. The third work introduces a third tree, and so on. By the time you walk to the 7th and 8th work in the room, the forms and colors fuse together in an abstraction that celebrates difference as a whole. 

Pecan Trees: Set 3, 2022

Even when the layered colors are the exact same within a single square, the final color within each square (a brown or green, etc.) is always different due to the variance of pigment saturation in every application.

Pecan Trees: Set 5, 2022

Pecan Trees: Set 5, 2022 (detail)

Charles Gaines installation at Hauser & Wirth, 2th floor

Installation view, ‘Charles Gaines. Southern Trees,’ Hauser & Wirth New York 22nd Street

A great 10-minute video is linked below, produced by Art21. In it, Gaines talks about a relationship between his artistic system and larger social/political systems:

In a way, I’m trying to suggest that the kind of visual difference that happens in the system [within the artworks] operates the same way that other concepts of difference happen in other domains: politics, gender difference, race difference, class difference. In the drawings we can see that those differences are constructed by the system, and in the social and political domain, the differences that we see are also constructed by a system.

– Charles Gaines

Charles Gaines installation at Hauser & Wirth, 5th floor west wall with visitors

Installation view, ‘Charles Gaines. Southern Trees,’ Hauser & Wirth New York 22nd Street

The series of work on the 5th floor adds complexity, scale, transparency, and sunlight, resulting in some of the most uplifting and captivating works on view now. Each of the 9 works throughout the skylit room follow a similar logic of “adding a tree” as you walk around the room, but now the photographic images are printed on clear Plexiglass boxes that encapsulate each large painting.

Full image of "Charleston Series 1, Tree #1, Old Towne Road, 2022"

Numbers and Trees: Charleston Series 1, Tree #1, Old Towne Road, 2022

Detail of "Charleston Series 1, Tree #1, Old Towne Road, 2022"

Numbers and Trees: Charleston Series 1, Tree #1, Old Towne Road, 2022 (detail)

Exploring the colorful, painted grid requires a viewer to look through a photographic detail of the branches of the newest tree. And due to the distance between the Plexiglass and painting (almost 6 inches), the images shift as you move, offering a sense of discovery similar to the feeling of peering through real branches to see a distant landscape.

Full image of "Numbers and Trees: Charleston Series 1, Tree #5, Tranquil Drive, 2022"

Numbers and Trees: Charleston Series 1, Tree #5, Tranquil Drive, 2022

Detail of "Numbers and Trees: Charleston Series 1, Tree #5, Tranquil Drive, 2022"

Numbers and Trees: Charleston Series 1, Tree #5, Tranquil Drive, 2022 (detail)

Full image with viewer of "Numbers and Trees: Charleston Series 1, Tree #8, Sage Way, 2022"

Numbers and Trees: Charleston Series 1, Tree #8, Sage Way, 2022

Detail of "Numbers and Trees: Charleston Series 1, Tree #8, Sage Way, 2022"

Numbers and Trees: Charleston Series 1, Tree #8, Sage Way, 2022 (detail)

Each painting is a satisfying story, and though you don’t need to connect the dots between them, this is a rare opportunity to see complete sets together and experience those relationships in a single room.

The above 10-minute video features works from the exhibition along with larger, recent musical and interactive works. Well worth watching.

Installation view, ‘Charles Gaines. Southern Trees,’ Hauser & Wirth New York 22nd Street

Portrait of Artist Charles Gaines in his Studio

Charles Gaines, © Charles Gaines, Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth \\\ Photo: Fredrik Nilsen

What: Charles Gaines: Southern Trees
Where: Hauser & Wirth New York, 542 W 22nd St, New York, NY
When: January 26 – April 1, 2023

Images:  Installation Images © Charles Gaines, Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth, Photographed by Sarah Muehlbauer
Artwork Images © Charles Gaines, Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth, Photographed by Fredrik Nilsen

David Behringer visits over 200 galleries every month to uncover and share the most exciting contemporary art in New York today. Subscribe to his exclusive weekly newsletter at www.thetwopercent.com and learn about his private gallery tours. And be sure to check out his YouTube.

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