The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2019

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FEB 2019 Issue

James Siena: Painting

James Siena, Concordulation, 2017. Acrylic on canvas, 75 x 60 inches. © James Siena. Courtesy Pace Gallery.

New York
January 11 – February 9, 2019

The most radical aspect of James Siena’s aesthetics, extending from his earliest works, is that he foregrounds the empirical impulse. His inclination towards a systematic development of his imagery—deploying a rather impersonal, autonomic, algorithmic process to generate intricate patterns that fill each composition to bursting—is antithetical to much contemporary art that still hews to the idealist autonomy of an artist’s “genius.” In a strangely tonic way, Siena’s extreme dependence on method offers a welcome relief to the over-reliance on singular subjective invention that yet haunts contemporary painting. Siena has described this technical aspect of his work as, “just mechanical stuff [that] goes exactly to the point of the work is to make—the mechanics of the work is the way into it for the viewer too.”1 So his intent seems also to narrow the gap between a painter’s technique and an audience’s technical understanding. In any case, Siena definitely stepped out of his own way in this regard to set free a highly prolific pattern-demon that has traced webs of line and intricate matrices like a master lacemaker. For Siena, the craft becomes subsumed in the product, yet the product is the inevitable result of the craft not the inevitable result of a personal muse. Individual masterpieces are not what Siena is after. Nevertheless, his works do tend to slip themselves from the bonds of the artist’s deliberate calculations. Perhaps this is exactly the point where Siena’s blind science becomes visionary discovery: mechanically establish a field of intention—Siena’s procedures are, after all, conceptually shot through with Field, topological, and vector philosophies—and the autonomous field will come.

James Siena, Converbatron, 2018. Acrylic and charcoal on canvas, 75 x 60 inches. © James Siena. Courtesy Pace Gallery.

Though ostensibly derived from empirical method, the work nevertheless gains a sensual reality all its own. Converbatron (2018) feels vast yet partitioned like flying over farmland at 30,000 feet, and simultaneously intimate like a close inspection of an Ojibwe sweetgrass basket. Murex-purple lines, making their gnarly way across the large canvas, advance and recur in pulsing waves. One has the sense of being enveloped by a macrocosmic field in microcosmic increments. Siena’s painstaking adherence to the strictures of his formulae leads paradoxically to an altogether phenomenal result, (what Merleau-Ponty would describe as a pre-theoretical, embodied experience), one that actually refutes its origin as an empirical construct. A quotidian example of Siena’s peculiar aesthetics can be seen in the mechanical processing of nature in the production of plywood sheets. The patterns that the lateral shaving of a tree trunk produces resemble organic growth, but such technically arrived at abstract patterns wouldn’t be seen in a simple walk through the woods. This notion of organic resemblance derived from a processing logic is key to understanding Siena’s abstractions. The artist evades direct mimesis yet recuperates an organic resemblance via the empirical processes he sets in motion. This is the point in which his compositions gain their nervous, sensual autonomy.

James Siena, Ssonsunurrhth, 2018. Acrylic and charcoal on canvas, 90 1/2 x 70 1/4 inches. © James Siena. Courtesy Pace Gallery.

The significant shift of scale in Siena’s work and his use of acrylic paint on canvas modifies the drafting table intimacy of his previous work, which was primarily executed in enamel on metal and in various graphic and printmaking modes on paper. The largest canvas is entitled Ssonsunurrhth (2018), in which skeins of dark red parallel lines shudder across a lighter red field. What would have been perceived in a smaller scale version as delicately inscribed micro-illumination becomes much more performatively topographic in this larger scale. The composition also evokes older artworks. The densely-etched lines of the 17th Century Dutch printmaker Hercules Seghers’s landscapes come to mind, as do Song Dynasty Chinese landscapes. Both of these precedents graphically idealized their subject through strict procedural means, printmaking process in the former and a highly stylized visual syntax in the latter, so their aesthetic affinity to Siena’s linear strategy is quite logical. The fact that Siena manages to evoke such traditional sources without directly referencing them lends this particular work a classic aspect—without diminishing its freshness. A related painting, Sretrisths (2018) further extends historical allusions to Song landscape painting in its vertical composition of lines traced and then painted on an irregularly streaked background that exudes a smoky mystique.

Other works in the show are somewhat less expansively composed in the sense that their grounds encroach more aggressively on their linear bundling. Concordulation (2017), for instance, suspends two quasi-identical ganglious masses in red and dark red on a pure white field, as a gasoline slick can be suspended in a rain puddle. The effect on the overall composition is to create an internal pressure that constrains the free play of Siena’s graphic invention, which includes allusions to Haida nesting ovoid shape-forms (the kind seen in their elegantly compressed cedar box compositions). Siena’s work has in the past often made these kinds of formal allusions to non-European sources, perhaps as homage to influence or simply as recognition of traditions in which the figure and ground are enmeshed in a pressurized physics. The paintings Retrronr and Urretru (both 2018) are similarly bounded by fields regulating the restless energies of the artist’s repetitive and recursive line. This limiting pushes Siena’s lines into an almost-entity form, an annuciative presence that animates these paintings, in an uncanny way directly addressing the limits of the viewer’s own bodily extension. One feels these abstractions in one’s bones.

Taking in Siena’s newest works in their large and painterly format also offers a reconsideration of the artist’s current aesthetics as more performatively present; perhaps less internally retiring than his more diminutive previous works. The interiority of those former works (reinforced by their intimate scale) often retained an air about them of a monkish preoccupation with the mechanical translation of automatically received signals into illuminated realization, or even perhaps that of an institutionalized savant attempting to graphically rationalize a world unto their private science. In such instances a certain kind of hermetic inaccessibility can threaten to mute a wider, more worldly address. With his newest paintings, Siena has taken a bracing long walk out of his intricately self-constructed scriptorium, bringing himself within view of much more abundant yields afield.


Tom McGlynn

Tom McGlynn is an artist and writer based in the NYC area.


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2019

All Issues