Charles Gaines, Numbers and Trees, Central Park, Series I, Tree #9, 2016, black-and-white photograph, acrylic on Plexiglas, 8 x 10 x 6'.

Since the early 1970s, Charles Gaines has used the grid to interrogate the constructed nature of representation. His work is featured in “Solidary & Solitary: The Joyner/Giuffrida Collection,” a touring exhibition that historicizes how artists have responded to demands that they make “black artsince the 1940s. Curated by Christopher Bedford and Katy Siegel, the show is on view at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans until January 21, 2018 and then will travel to the Nasher Museum of Art in Durham, North Carolina, from February 15 to July 15, 2018; the Snite Museum of Art in South Bend, Indiana, from August 20 to November 25, 2018; the Baltimore Museum of Art from March to July 2019; and the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive from August 2019 to January 2020.

WHILE I WAS IN GRADUATE SCHOOL IN THE LATE 1960S at the Rochester Institute of Technology, I discovered I found no meaning or joy in intuiting an idea and expressing it on canvas. The whole operation felt quite arbitrary, and I couldn’t identify myself with it. Through reading—first Henri Focillon’s The Life of Forms in Art and then volumes on Tantric and Buddhist art—I discovered art practices in the world beyond this. I wanted to deal with ideas intellectually and rationally, but from my own perspective as a Westerner. So I looked for tropes, like mathematics, that do not privilege the creative unconscious. I wondered if I could use these strategies—and indeterminacy—to make art. The ego is limiting; we gravitate toward things we know and can’t imagine things we don’t know. Through “systems” I could go where the imagination couldn’t and bring things that otherwise would not be thought about to light. Out of this I began using the grid.

I first used the grid in my “Regression Series” of 1973 and 1974. This was before I began working with images. I used simple arithmetic calculations to produce forms on a grid. The initial drawing produced numbers along a grid’s axes, and these were used to produce the next drawing, and so forth. This arithmetic method yielded parabolic shapes that could be read as natural organisms, with metaphorical implications. But the forms were produced by a system, not my imagination. The following year, in the series “Walnut Tree Orchard,” I started using objects. I plotted the shape of the tree on a grid, then overlaid coordinates so that a single object would increase in density over the course of the series. I was using systems to critique the idea that representation is a function of intuition. I was less interested in undermining the role of representation in art, and more interested in showing that it is a construction.

At the time, this way of working put me in a pickle. It was problematic in relation to the history of black expression. It prevented me from being established in the white artist community, and also as a black artist. I had to justify using abstraction in terms of my identity as a black person. The Black Power movement and Amiri Baraka’s essentializing ideas of black representation were influential, and the white artist community did not embrace me because I did not behave or make art like a stereotypically black artist. I dismissed the art world’s issue. But I felt that the question of the relationship between my history and my work was a legitimate one. I struggled with it for years, and it was responsible for my interest in theory. I surmised that my interest in abstract ideas and concepts was part of my temperament, but that it was also nurtured by my experience growing up as a black kid in the Jim Crow South. Segregation just didn’t make sense to me. I was always asking questions: Why can’t I drink out of this fountain? Why do I have to sit in the back of the bus? I gravitated toward conceptual answers. I asked my mom if, when I died, I would come back as a bird. Transformation was my poetic response to escaping racism. Even as a child, I was thinking about cultural space abstractly. This contextualizes my interest in using ideas, and in interrogating them.

“Solidary & Solitary” centers on abstract art—mostly paintings—by artists of the African diaspora. In the 1960s, black abstractionists like Norman Lewis and Melvin Edwards were trying to figure out how their collective lived experience could be seen through European modernism, just as, in the 1970s, others of us struggled with a similar binary. The title of the show calls up the paradox of individual versus community. How can you invest in the modernist trope of individualism and at the same time invest in the postmodern strategy of community? The show raises the problem of this paradox to a significant level, and the artists in it suggest different solutions. Lewis got involved in work opportunities for artists and also had a sort of narrative-based approach to abstraction. I dealt with it by rethinking representation and the real, using the grid and language. My recent work Numbers and Trees, Central Park, Series I, Tree #9, which is in the show, demonstrates that diagraming is not a literalization, but, in fact, that it produces abstraction. It shows that the line separating representation and the real is quite blurred. It raises questions about how objects are represented. 

“Solidary & Solitary” establishes that the problem of individualism versus community, of modernism versus identity, is one that black artists dealt with as early as the 1940s. The art world is just getting around to dealing with it now. I don’t think we’re at a pivotal point of resolving this paradox. The problems that underlie these binary relationships are still present, and they’re not just black problems.

— As told to Kate Green

Farah Al Qasimi, Falcon Hospital 2 (Blue Glove), 2016, ink-jet print, 27 x 20”.

Among the thirteen photographs mounted in “More Good News,” the Emirati artist Farah Al Qasimi’s first solo exhibition in New York, are several portraits of men in their homes, reclining on ornately patterned couches or sitting on a bed. Other pictures look inside a falcon hospital in Abu Dhabi, and one captures a dog cowering next to a table littered with guns in Texas. Throughout, the images reveal Al Qasimi’s fascination with the privileges of privacy and what it might mean to see or be seen. The show is on view at Helena Anrather until December 22, 2017. 

“MORE GOOD NEWS” comes out of my recent interest in formal portraiture. I had been photographing male friends and family members, and—with this show in mind—I began thinking about how these portraits would be contextualized in the US. I’m interested in the feedback loop of public opinion and foreign policy, and in how representation is crucial to how Americans perceive Arabs. Decades ago, during Hollywood’s obsession with sheikhs and harems, Arab men were generally perceived as passionate romantics, but now they’re seen as brutish and violent—terrorists, essentially. 

Where I grew up, it was common to see a lot of physical closeness between men. It’s a delicate thing that is generally misunderstood outside of the Arab world. It was important to me that that softness was present in my portraits and that, as a woman, I was controlling the way that these people were being seen. Each image is composed differently; each is embedded with its own logic of confrontation or avoidance. I’m committed to acknowledging the power imbalance inherent in portraiture, and in telling others what to look at, however vague or oblique it might be.

The photographs I took at a falcon hospital in Abu Dhabi underscore that commitment. A lot of people in the Emirates use falcons as hunting birds, and this hospital rehabilitates birds of prey when they get sick or become injured. The facility is visually striking: it has the bright blue, clinical sterility of any regular hospital, but it’s filled with these stunning birds wearing leather hoods. They sit on their perches, calmly waiting to be seen by the nurses, because they’re completely defenseless without their sight. It’s such a drastic transformation of character. 

Something struck me about seeing such wild birds suddenly have a tender, vulnerable relationship with these humans, whom they now rely upon to stay alive. The simple addition of the hoods renders them captive, and gives the nurses—and me, the photographer—total control. It felt violent to be participating in this unilateral gaze. That feeling of voyeurism and intrusion seemed analogous to how people under surveillance feel—something I have often been on the receiving end of.

The NSA has always had a looming presence in my life; I joke that we are longtime friends by now. Phone calls are interrupted by intricate glitches; mail arrives three months late with security stickers plastered everywhere. In this form of identity-based surveillance, there’s an act of judgment, and there’s an act of extraction. Someone with an apparently supreme ability to judge character and synthesize information is taking all these parts of a life and determining whether its existence is a threat to national security. It’s portraiture, in a way.

For me, photography functions as one part of a larger system of extraction and editorializing. I think there’s a power in asking people to respond to images that might reveal something about their own misinformation. The problem of subjectivity permeates the practice of photography at every level, and I’m invested in what that means beyond the walls of the gallery.

— As told to Juliana Halpert

Dara Friedman, Dichter (Poet), 2017, four-channel HD video transferred from 16 mm film, color, sound, duration indefinite.

Over the past decade, Dara Friedman has asked large casts of participants to respond to simple ideas or thoughts, eliciting, in turn, raw emotion and chance developments within controlled situations. On the occasion of her survey at the Pérez Art Museum Miami, the artist talks about her newest work, Dichter (Poet), 2017, a four-channel video portraying sixteen people reciting their favorite poems. Titled “Perfect Stranger,” the exhibition includes work spanning twenty years and is on view through March 4, 2018.

FOR DICHTER, I wanted to summon the emotion often felt by teenagers of being passionately sad and yet full of energy. I wanted to feel like that again, and figured if I wanted to, others probably needed to as well. I grew up in Palm Beach County, Florida, during the 1980s under Reagan, which had its freedoms and qualities, but the preoccupations could be pretty materialistic and narrow. I took German in high school because I already spoke German, and I figured it would be an easy A. But the teacher was clever and would sit me in the corner and give me Rainer Maria Rilke poems to translate to keep me occupied, which of course completely blew my mind. The earnestly candid incantations of love and God that popped and tripped off my lips were a huge, welcome kick in the ass, and they were exactly what I needed at the time. So, I thought: “We’re now in these awful, cynical times. Let’s remember what put gas in our tanks in the first place—the urges and desires that made us want to be artists. Let’s remember what that felt like.” I decided I would put that question to others and see which poems they’d been carrying around with them since their teenage years.

While trying to figure out the best way to speak these poems, I discovered acting exercises by Jerzy Grotowski and became interested in one that involves speaking against a wall, so that the vibrations of your own speech bounce off the wall and enter your body. Years ago I’d taken a Sanskrit course, and this exercise reminded me of it. When you speak Sanskrit, your tongue curls up into the roof of your mouth, and the vibrations of the words pulse through your skull. When you speak English—which is more of a rock ‘n’ roll language—all the wind rushes out in front of you like you’re on a motorcycle. In German, two almost conflicting mouth actions happen at once: the first is tender and takes place at the front with your lips, and the second is strong and occurs at the back in your throat. The method for making Dichter involved filling the speaker’s body with the vibrations of their own voice, and the words of the poem, bouncing their own sound waves off the wall and letting them be absorbed into the body. So that it isn’t just the mouth speaking the words, but the full body transmitting the sound. The declaration “I LOVE YOU!” sounds furious.

I like to do open calls for my works because I have no idea who’s going to walk through the door. It’s always a surprise, but a controlled one. There are rules of engagement with strangers, of course. But having an open call feels like jumping over five years of casual meetings—you can immediately ask the question you’re truly interested in.

This work was made with my friend Richard Needham behind the camera. We met in film school, and we’ve been working together since then—sometimes filming simultaneously with two cameras, or as a physical extension of each other, and sometimes in a more classic cinematographer and director relationship. I edit, and maybe that’s my strong suit. It’s a fairly solitary process. Editing by definition is controlling. Like the three Fates in ancient Greek mythology: you are sitting there spinning the thread of life as it dances before you on the screen, you measure the life, and you cut the life. You create the world in your own vision and rhythm, and it’s one of the few situations where you can make it exactly as you want it to be. I’m impatient by nature, and in the editing process I get to edit things in my rhythm of impatience, and it momentarily becomes a virtue.

— As told to Laura Hoffmann