To label the works that Charles Gaines recently produced with Paulson Fontaine Press “prints” is accurate (they are indeed printed) but also misleading. More than a meter tall, each consists of an etching within a clear acrylic case that is printed with a tight grid of black lines and red numbers. The etchings picture trees composed of small squares of diaphanous color; the color squares match the openings in the grid that hovers above them, and the numbers in the grid correspond to the colors below. But the distance between the paper and the plastic means that the squares and the grid never fully align in your eye. Wherever you stand, there is always slippage.
Further complicating perception of the image is the fact that the prints build sequentially: Tree #1, April uses squares of watery blue to portray a single bare tree; in Tree #2, May, a stockier orange tree overlaps the blue one; Tree #4, July adds two short green firs to the blue and orange ones; and by Tree #6, September, half a dozen trees have been overlaid, their trunks aligned, their branches stretching hither and thither. (The numbers correspond to the most recent tree in each image.)
Gaines has been using grids and numbers to systematize the representation of real things since the 1970s, long before “pixilation” was either common parlance or a common visual experience. Beginning with a photograph, he assigns numeric values to the squares that coincide with the image—a kind of Cartesian paint-by-number. Trees have been a frequent subject (these, found in the Tiergarten in Berlin, also appeared in the artist’s recent show at Galerie Max Hetzler there), but Gaines has explained that the tree is not intended as a stand-in for nature, or culture, or anything else; it is a structural premise—a complex linear form for considering how one might “realize an object in the world within a mathematical form.” The subject goes from being a tree, to being traces of light on photoreceptors, to being ink on paper and “a series of numbers that aggregate to the form of a tree.”
Trees, however, are not Lego bricks. Their complexity, irregularity and cellular lack of interest in right angles make them mulishly ill-suited to grid-based representation, and in that mismatch lies fascination: we can recognize the loveliness of the tree as a form, but we can also feel the gravitational pull of precise systems and formulae—the beautiful clarity that can occur in physics and mathematics. In Tiergarten Series 3 the air that lies between the etching and printed case gives physical form to the cognitive gap between pictorial perception and analytic systems—perhaps the most human of all visual experiences.