In a pitch-dark room, a constellation of pinprick stars floated in front of me. But the light was starting to change. Infinitesimally, the inky black washed away, and the stars became points of light on three panels, mounted on a white wall. As the light continued to rise, the stars disappeared and words in precise, black font took their place. The light from the screen now shone out into the room, so I could see the top of the beanie-clad boy’s head in front of me when he leaned in close to the girl beside him and told her, in a quiet voice, “I’m not sure, but I think I like this.”
“Sky Box I” exemplifies the discipline bending work of Charles Gaines,who delivered a lecture at the Yale School of Art on Mon., March 3. Since 1970, Gaines has created conceptual art that has been displayed in around 70 solo exhibitions and several hundred group shows, that addresses issues including racism, sexism, and the relationship between the artist and viewer.
In “Sky Box I”, Gaines displayed four political manifestos—“A Declaration from the Poor Oppressed of England” (1649) by Gerard Winstanley, two post-colonial texts by philosophers and politicians Léopold Sédar Senghor and Frantz Fanon, and Vietnam’s Declaration of Independence (1945)—on an LED screen that, in a repeating seven-minute-long loop, fade into a black sky dusted with stars made from 60,000 tiny holes in the screen. “There’s no beginning or end,” Gaines said of the work. “Whatever time you walk in, you have no idea what you’ll experience.” While Gaines tries to limit his presence in his work in order to allow viewers to come to their own conclusions about it, he emphasized, “The work has to be positioned so that, as we experience it and interpret it, we are engaged as a community in the same thing.” Ultimately, he said, “I need to control the terms of the debate.”
Twenty minutes after his talk ended, I sat in the sub-street level dining room at Thai Taste on Chapel Street at a long table filled with graduate students from the School of Art. To my right sat Gaines; at the opposite end of the table sat Robert Storr, Dean of Yale School of Art, who informed me that after each lecture by a visiting artist, the graduate school provides money to take the artist, and a group of students, out to dinner. Gaines ordered bourbon with a single ice cube—Maker’s Mark whiskey. “When the drinks come, we’ll talk,” he insisted.
“The role of experience has been underplayed in art,” Gaines told me, a few minutes later, with the glass resting in his palm. His brow furrowed, tendons bunching between his eyebrows, as he spoke. “I was really interested in the relationship between the subject and the work, and the affect that the subject produces.” Gaines, who was born in Charleston, South Carolina in 1944, and who is African American, said that he has been grappling with the issues of oppression and social justice through the medium of conceptual art since he was 22.
Gaines spoke in cautious, halting phrases, frequently stopping sentences midway through, doubled back, and started over. “Right now, criticism and discourse around work is on a downward slope,” Gaines said. “We are at a period where language is highly suspicious. People are very suspicious of discourse about work.” For Gaines, though, the discussion about the work is nearly as important as the piece itself. Without the viewer’s experience of the work and the start of a discussion, the work would be rendered essentially pointless.
“One might assume that the purpose of raising [social] issues is to change society,” Gaines said. “But I’m not thinking that I might change the existence of racism.” Instead, he is “in the stage of trying to make these issues important to others,” raising “basic questions about how we perceive and receive ideas, how they are influencing our thoughts.”
But, here, he stopped short; the waitress had arrived with his shrimp and asparagus. Gaines gave me a last glance, and swirled the remnants of the ice cube in his glass. Drinks were over; art talk faded out.