Thursday, April 15, 2010

Siena studio

I am writing reviews for the Times again:
Intricate, sometimes brilliantly colored geometrical abstractions, carefully rendered on small metal panels or sheets of paper, are the main attractions in a current show at the Cornell's Johnson Museum.

These lovably convoluted flatlands are the work of James Siena, a Cornell graduate (BFA, 1979), and the winner of this year's Eissner Artist of the Year Award. The prize is given annually to "an alumna/us who has achieved national or international success in the arts" something Siena has achieved over the course of three decades in New York City. "James Siena: From the Studio" will be on display at the Johnson through Sunday, April 18.

Siena's images belong to a genre of artworks (not just visual) incorporating preconceived formal constraints as a primary source of structure and shape. Sol LeWitt, to whom Siena is frequently compared, is a primary point of reference. LeWitt devised formulas for wall drawings to be executed by assistants e.g., iterations of straight-ruled horizontal, vertical, and diagonal lines.

LeWitt is of great historical importance and undoubtedly an influence on the younger artist. Siena's work, however, develops these ideas in a different and arguably richer direction more aesthetically robust, more sensual and bodily. Plus his math is just more interesting. Though strictly non-figurative (with exceptions, see below), Siena's art might be closer to that of M.C. Escher, whose geometrical schemas are deployed in the service of more accessible image-making.

Siena is also frequently aligned with folk and decorative traditions. However, his art has a self-enclosed quality that seems to place it more directly in the modern art lineage.

The most elaborately formal work here is composed with sign-painter's enamel on aluminum panels, a signature medium. Enter the Faces and Base Three feature elaborate patterns of nested geometric forms. The former contains spiraling rectangular shapes while the latter's rounded forms feel dully static. The acridly colored Non-Slice is a strong example of Siena's more organic, freeform side. It can indeed be seen as a cross-section perhaps of some biological or geological structure.

V-Module is a dizzying maze-vortex in two colors: green and off-white. Hook-like striations converge towards the center of the panel, but the visual core is strangely indeterminate. Module is notably irregular in its manual execution you can see varying opacities of paint, as well as areas of unpainted metal.

Siena is a rather hit-or-miss colorist. Much of his best work is color restricted, often two-toned. For example, the branching, sponge-like growth of Ballou black ink on white paper is not too far removed from the simplicity of Matisse's cutout collages.

Recently, Siena has incorporated his intricate patterning into images of comics-influenced human grotesques. The profiled head of a Cursing Old Man (graphite on paper) is crisply outlined, while his interior forms suggesting muscles and brain are rendered in scratchily tonal lines. (The allover abstract graphite drawing Untitled (Fuzzy Line) has similar mark-making look closely and it's easy to see a face.) In Flatland, Flat Battered Girls, and Four Figures Connected feature disturbingly flattened and distended figures.

Flat Mole and Flat Mouse (both from his student days) are both done on outstretched animal hides covered with metal leaf. The former features tiny drawn hands. Also outliers in Siena's corpus are three small sculptures. Lattices of toothpick fragments have been constructed around grape stems. These minor efforts fit the show's intimate and exploratory theme.

Beyond Siena's own work, a collection of art and artifacts "from the studio" also forms an integral part of the show's concept. The bona-fide artworks are from friends and influences (many bear dedications). Although mostly so-so as art, they do help define a sensibility.

Alan Saret, a mentor of Siena's, has created one of the most impressive images here: Shroni Gorge Air. One of his "gang drawings," it was done with several colored pencils in hand, manipulated with characteristic grace and variety. It contains a sense of sweeping movement akin to the weather. In a similar vein, but less subtle and expressive, is a tiny ink drawing by the abstract surrealist Charles Seliger.

The non-art fares better. Two antique typewriters, aside from being beautiful, are closely linked to Siena's sensibility in at least two ways: in their implicitly anthropomorphic form and in the transparency of their mechanisms. Like them, Siena's work displays its inner workings actually more so because their resolute flatness leaves nothing occluded.

Three small photographs, anonymous aerial surveillance images from World War 1, show networks of trenches. Many of these form crenellation-like patterns, particularly Siena-esque.

This is flawed yet fascinating show, a glimpse into the work and sensibility of an intriguing and influential artist.


Siena will be giving a talk on his work at the museum 4:30 p.m. Friday, April 16. An award ceremony for the Eissner will be held in conjunction with the talk. Visit for more information.
The show was also reviewed for the Cornell Daily Sun.