James Siena’s exhibit at Gorney Bravin + Lee is his third one-person show in New York City. He is showing 12 small paintings made over the last two years, and a large group of intimate drawings in the back room. This is a tremendous show.
The 12 paintings are made on thin aluminum and copper panels with glossy sign painters’ enamel. The paintings come in two sizes: 19 1/4” x 15 1/8” and 29 1/16” x 22 11/16”. Almost all the work is painted with lines: tiny lines carefully hand painted with a tiny brush in meandering, zigzagging, compulsively repeating patterns. The paintings take months of patient labor. They reward long periods of long observation; the small shiny surfaces are compacted with information.
The abstract images are created using what the artist terms algorithms, a set of strict logical parameters and rules for the development of a form. These basic systems are easier to see in the little drawings. Siena sets up rules for each painting that create a fresh set of patterning problems. Sometimes the rules are simple, like generating a radiating target, or running lines from the middle out into the corners. In other paintings, relatively complex forming strategies are continually telescoped in on themselves, until Siena’s tiny brush runs out of space. Where it gets really interesting is in this tremendous compression. Strategies are taken to their ultimate absurd conclusions–and patterns disappear into specks of information the size of a typewritten dot.
Siena’s systematic approach to generating paintings links him to conceptual predecessors like Sol Lewitt, but unlike Lewitt, who hires assistants to execute his designs, Siena is both the concept man and the craftsman executor. And there’s a greater difference: Siena’s enterprise lacks the academic formalism and deadly serious self-consciousness of most of Lewitt's. With many conceptual artists of the 1970s, the idea–and this was usually somewhat obvious and boring to begin with, was pretty much all that you got. The execution was perfunctory or optional. But Siena’s algorithms function as the stimulus for his intensely challenging and very personal feats of painting. There is a wide range in the algorithms and the resulting forms, and a matter of fact irregularity in the execution. Obsessive and a little insane perhaps–but matter of fact. It’s as if the artist sets up a game for himself, with certain rules and do’s and don’ts: and then performs astonishing feats of pure line dancing, pushing himself to the very edge of what’s possible within those invented limits. These paintings are painted. They are born and understood through a trembling eye to hand, moment to moment engagement.
The Gorney Bravin + Lee’s gallery space is big, with high ceilings and bright fluorescent and incandescent lighting. From across the room, Siena’s paintings first read as fuzzy little tablets; one is drawn closer and then sucked in to their intense energy field. These paintings naturally draw you right up to them, and with your face pressed an inch from the surface, they start to feel huge. Personally, I have to put on my reading glasses. The paintings are the size of a large book and one reads them up close like text–the inner scale is vast. Twelve small Siena paintings involves a lot of information.
Siena’s paintings are optically kick-ass. They flicker, they glow, zigzag, vibrate, pulse, and shimmer with energy. Lines of light zoom and dance across the surface. Colors buzz in tiny pathways and coils and telescoping rectangles. Often the light seems to be shining through from behind the forms, sparkling jewel-light. Siena’s color ranges from close harmonies of browns, creams and grays, to straight out of the can primaries. The color is seductive and yet somehow straightforward, like the color of an actual sign in Chinatown or the inside of a tractor engine.
Many of Siena’s paintings have a kind of Op Art dizzying vibration to them. But that never seems to be the intent–to create optical effects. Rather, Siena is seriously seeking to understand and bring these structures to life. The mind can follow the direction of a particular line, for example, in its convoluted meandering path from one place to another. One follows the line, and follows Siena’s mind racing along the line. Somehow Siena turns painting tiny lines into a profound activity.
It’s a bit of a mystery why the paintings are so compelling. I mean, sure they are beautiful and shiny and sleek to look at, but they resonate on a much deeper level. There is an archetypal resonance to many of the forms. They may remind one of Celtic illuminations, Peruvian textiles, Taj Mahal tile works, or perhaps computer chips, cellular structures, or an LSD patterning flashback. This wealth of references is an indication that Siena is tapping into a very rich and basic level of abstraction. The paintings have a wonderful anonymous quality. I mean, they are very uniquely Siena’s work from New York 2001, and at the same time could be ancient African house decoration, or Kwakiutl shamanic carving. And yet these are ultimately unnecessary references in the face of the actual energy and light of the paintings. There is an integrity, humility, and serious absurdity to Siena’s investigations. To the degree that Siena taps into a substructure of forming intelligence–and I mean the intelligence of the hand and brain together–his paintings offer us a rare pleasure. James Siena’s paintings allow us a glimpse into the deep joy of the mind.
CHRIS MARTIN is an artist based in Brooklyn.