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March 16 - April 27, 2002 at the CSU Los Angeles, East Los Angeles

by Diane Calder

"Falling Rock," mixed media
and electronics, 120 x 38 x 3".

"Night/Crimes: Aries," photo and
silkscreened text, 70 x 37", 1995.

There’s going to be talk about Charles Gaines’ Airplanecrash Clock. Completed in 1997, the thirteen-foot long kinetic work features a toy-like plane arcing over a scale model city complete with buildings you can recognize. The plane falls and is swallowed by a revolving trap door once every 7.5 minutes. The door’s flip side replicates a crash scene. You hear screams.

The passage of time since 9/11 and the placement of this particular piece within the context of a comprehensive body of work produced by the artist will underscore Gaines’ ability to reference material that alludes to our cultural fascination with disasters. He does so within a strategy that mediates and textualizes them. Viewers who look carefully at the work will realize that Gaines has incorporated anomalies into his simulacrum, juxtaposing buildings from various urban centers, freeing the plane from identifying logos, etc., making reality hard to pin down.

The lure in Charles Gaines Lurid Stories lies in his superb deployment of dramatic “life and death” subject matter to heighten our sense of vulnerability and effect emotional response in textural readings. He evokes the sublime while manipulating images, objects and words to produce sentiment that transforms, through systems and cosmic perspectives, “something” into “something else.”

This retrospective survey of Gaines’ projects from 1995 to 2001 was organized by the San Francisco Art Institute's Walter and McBean Galleries as the 2001 Adeline Kent Award exhibition.

Since 1959 the award, including an honorarium, catalogue, and one-person exhibition, has been given annually to recognize a distinguished California artist. Gaines, who exhibits widely, is also acknowledged for his contributions as a writer and influential faculty member at CalArts and CSU Fresno.

Falling Rock is a ten-foot tall wood and plexiglas tower containing a 65-pound chunk of granite (roughly the size and shape of a human head). The rock is centered beneath a clock and rigged to a steel cable which is connected to computerized timers. Every ten minutes the rock freefalls, coming to a wrenching stop just short of a pane of glass placed in the tower’s base. At two randomly timed occasions during the day, the rock shatters the glass. The rock crash is engineered to simulate an accident, and the work’s title serves the function of a yellow caution sign, enhancing the drama that builds in anticipation of each plunge. The duration and suspense, climaxing in the shattering of the glass evoke the drama that the artist states he links with “the aesthetic effects produced by metonymy. Since metonyms are socially constructed, establishing such a link in turn establishes a connection between the sociopolitical and the aesthetic.”

This relates to Gaines’ interest in “alchemically resolving and dissolving difference; the mind of a sorcerer, shifting sameness into difference and back again.” In Gaines’ hands, Magritte’s surrealistically suspended stone slips into the realm of the Buddhist deity (botsatsu), Jizó. That god is often portrayed as an oval rock, empowered to save infants, travelers and sinners from purgatory and hell, one of numerous examples of rock deification and associations with beliefs that spirits of the dead may live on in gravestones.

"Absent Figures: Rainier, Version 2,
Brigham Files," photos and
silkscreened text, 75 x 35", 2000.

"Airplanecrash Clock" (detail), mixed
media and electronics, 9 x 13 x 5', 1997.

Even Jizó could not rescue the tragic characters in Absent Figures: Rainier from an icy death. The story screened over the image of a craggy landscape in Rainier, Version 2, Brigham Files builds like a film noire. What begins as an adventure on a beautiful July morning ends in a search for bodies at the bottom of a crevasse. Gaines wraps disaster in narrative structure grouped with archival photographs, overwhelming the viewer.

Text offers less narrative support in the Night/Crimes series. Gaines does locate, date and identify sections of the starlit sky, as for example, “San Francisco, 37 Lat., and 122 Long. June 13, 2001. Corona Borealis between 15th 30m & 16h 59m RA, . . .” The viewer is left to detect relationships between these vast expanses of darkness aglow with scattered pinpoints of energy and the smaller documentary photos of “evidence” in the form of starkly lit, theatrical close-ups of victims, criminals and crime scenes. As we attempt to decide if we are deceiving ourselves by imposing causality to make sense of this work, the perfect uncertainty grows.