James Siena’s third solo exhibition at Gorney Bravin + Lee features 78 works on paper that emanate life and expressive individuality. Among these innovative abstractions in graphite, ink, and colored pencil are thirty notational drawings assembled in the gallery’s small back room. Providing the viewer with a glimpse of the artist’s working process, these pieces are especially insightful. Although the press release announces that the works span the period from 1984 to the present, the exhibition, simply entitled James Siena: Drawings, should not be confused with a retrospective. Except for the notebook studies in the back and nine black and white ink studies installed on the north wall of the main gallery space, all of the drawings date from the last two years. Nevertheless, the comprehensive and multifaceted installation presents a thorough excursion into the artist’s rich visual vocabulary, combining new and recurring structural themes.
For James Siena, the practices of painting and drawing are of equal importance. He constructs his exquisite works by following preliminary systematic instructions, so-called algorithms, which he assigns to himself as idealistic and technical challenges. Associating these guidelines with the way modern information transmitters, such as computers, are directed through simple commands, Siena treats his abstractions like codified messages. Thinking in terms of “dividing, iterating, recursion, connecting, and sending,” he stages images that become universally interpretable and seem to contain some logical, yet mystified truths. While this process has led to comparisons with Sol LeWitt, Siena’s approach remains his own. As opposed to his “mind’s ability to complete the work as planned,” the “fallibility” of his hand grants each work room for the incidental and personal. As schematic inventions that are idiosyncratic and psychologically charged, Siena’s works hit a contemporary nerve as the line between human and machine has begun to blur.
Two compositions, both entitled “Infected Lattice,” are constructed through multiple interlocking and connecting lines that radiate from various nodes. Spanning the picture plane in a web-like pattern, the lines envelop the seemingly infinite space by establishing a network that compresses and expands throughout the picture plane. The depth of space in both cases is enhanced through the artist’s choice of warm and cool tones. Instead of neutralizing each other, the colors create a push and pull effect that magnifies the sense of disorientation and dramatic movement. Siena, who is known for working on recurring themes in order to develop their expressive potential, once defined the structure of a painting with a similar title as follows:
… Diagonals connect the four corners. A vertical and a horizontal run through the intersection of the diagonals, and four diagonals then connect the endpoints of them. These diagonals thus intersect the original two diagonals creating four intersections, which are then connected to form a rectangle…
Although these instructions read rather dryly, the actual imagery is far from it. Rather than looking like illustrations from a technical manual, the works bring to mind microscopic views of atomic systems or synaptic connections. It is in these individually interpretable yet loosely associative themes that Siena comes closest to his aim to construct pictures that “are so beyond complex that even a baby can understand them.” Not because their conceptual content is easier to access, but because they contain an emotional expressiveness that encourages a dialogue between the viewer and the object.
In the simplified geometric compositions such as “Reverse Ladder” and “Lighthouse Variation with Crosses,” this relationship changes, moving from personal to conceptual. Within the context of the exhibition, “Reverse Ladder” marks an exception with regard to its strict minimal structure and the artist’s use of a ruler. Taking the central axis of the paper as mirroring division, Siena arranges the composition in a symmetrical order. Eight pairs of vertical lines, of which each couple is given the same color, divide the space into rectangular compartments. The general idea, that each color unit consists of two vertical bands and at least one horizontal link, is easy to grasp. Rather than sparking the viewer’s imagination, this composition reads as formal riddle. Here, the structural elements, their schematic relationship to each other, as well as their relationship to the negative space, become the primary focus. In his catalogue essay on Siena’s work, Robert Hobbs mentions that the artist attempts to take the viewer “away from the preponderance of the grid and introduces the concept of the path and procedure as part and parcel of a pattern modality.” When reintroducing the grid, Siena’s abstractions are more obviously design oriented and in the case of “Reverse Ladder,” reminiscent of Bauhaus aesthetics.
It is this wide spectrum of stylistic approaches to abstraction that makes the exhibition such a rich experience. Whether obsessive or serene, intricate or extensive, reminiscent of folk art, aerial photographs, stained-glass windows, architectural ornaments, crystallized formations, or quoting biology, geometry and mathematics, the works show James Siena in the midst of his chosen thematic analysis. As an artist who attempts to examine his medium from a full 360-degree radius, Siena might not always encounter equal success in his compositions, but he does show the courage to revisit and revise his tasks. Humbly, Siena once stated that he considered himself “just an old-fashioned picture maker” who “just uses different strategies to make one, [and who has] a certain faith that the picture will be worth looking at for a long time.” With this show, one cannot help but find at least several works which are visually as well as intellectually rewarding.