Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Siena Lecture

Tuesday, I got to see James Siena lecture at Cornell, which was a treat. The hall at the top of the Johnson's important I.M. Pei designed building (more here) was crowded with students and fans of his work. He showed many slides of his artwork (mostly paintings, some drawings and prints). These pieces are highly detailed and intricate, which was unfortunate for those not sitting in the front rows (as I was).

He showed and discussed the early development of his work, from his student days at Cornell (where he got a BFA the year I was born) through the late eighties or so. These earlier pieces, unlike the work for which Siena is known, were rough and thickly painted. Gradually, he abandoned this approach for a more craftsmanlike (as he emphasized) method characterized by carefullness and the use of premeditated rules to create structures.
After covering his early period, he switched from a
chronological approach to a taxonomic one, dividing his work into broad (and sometimes blurring) categories. Some of these (with examples) include: combs, nesting rectangles, crystal-like latttices, batteries (see above), doubling lines, radiating lines, non-slices, as well as more biomorphic pieces.

In response to my question about the continuity of his work, Siena responded that he has always tried to capture the "ontological intricacy" of the natural world, a intricacy he experienced (and drew) on summer trips to the Sierra Nevada mountains. Drawing off of this remark, I thought more about the relationship between two types of intricacy in art: that of Siena and like-minded artists—like Sol LeWitt and Tom Friedman for example—versus that of (say) Larry Poons, which Siena emulated earlier on. While the former can be seen as cognitive, structural and schematic the latter can come across as materialistic, physical and (perhaps) expressive. A map or representation as opposed to a real thing, an object. Although both may be ontologically intricate, the former are epistemologically so as well (if I may follow in his pseudo-philosophizing vein). Rather than simply provoking awe, they encourage you to try to understand the processes by which such intricacy can be generated. It is the difference between appreciating the complexity of nature and its materials and trying to reconstruct this complexity artificially. I wouldn't say that one way is intrinsically better than the other, but Siena did make a strong case for his own approach.

Siena also made negative comments about some of the ways critics try to describe his works. He disavowed the use of the terms "obsessive" and "compulsive" (as in obsessive-compulsive disorder). These words, he explained, are problematic because they pathologize artistic behavior. They also crop up fairly often as exhibition titles. He told a story of having lunch with the director of MoMA and being told that his work was on display there, in a show of prints called "The Compulsive Line" (which I saw myself a few weeks ago). Needless to say, he wasn't t
oo pleased. Here is another example: the show of "Obsessive Drawing", currently on display at The Museum of American Folk Art, practically right next to the Modern. I don't know, but I'll bet that these two are supposed to tie together. These terms bother me too, particularly since they are often applied to my own work—and by extension, to me. I'm not a psychologist, but I would like to think that what I do as an artist is healthy. Unfortunately, I've used these terms myself in artist's statements and the like; I should think twice before doing so again.

In response to a audience query, Siena also mocked the efforts of critics to link his work with various traditions of non-European art: Celtic, Indian, Aztec, Chinese, and so forth (as if these were interchangeable). He gave a plausible naturalistic explanation: love of pattern and detail is a universal human trait. That said, his work obviously does have traceable influences. He singled out one, his friend (and companion on scavenging trips to scrapyards), the sculptor Alan Saret, an interesting looking artist with whom I wasn't familiar.

Two more Siena links for those interested: a gallery page for his recent show at PaceWildenstein and a review of that show.

Labels: ,


Post a Comment

<< Home