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“In the end there is no resolution in the end there is no nothing and in the end there is no end there is no.” One of an array of drawn textual propositions that greet us at the entrance of James Siena’s new show Drawing at Pace Gallery, it’s a statement that might serve as an accurate — if somewhat pithy — encapsulation of the exhibition. Except that to read it here in typeface is to miss the point entirely, for as we’ve come to expect from this master of linear intricacy, the work’s distinctive charge comes not from any referential meaning it might suggest but rather from the quality of the line itself. Indeed, all of Siena’s Nihilisms — all discursive proclamations of the meaninglessness of the universe — are belied by the excessively energetic letters of their hand-drawn script (never has nothingness looked so exuberant). A show cagily loaded with negations, it is ultimately, like any good via negativa, also an affirmation — and one that further solidifies Siena’s authority in a medium still too often considered the handmaiden to painting.
In Manifolds, the second of three series on view here, Siena’s signature rule-based pen drawings become visual conundrums. Composed with impossibly dense lines ranging from minuscule to thin, interwoven lattices resembling Celtic knots wobble and writhe inside gaping swaths of empty paper, each cluster pulled, as if by some strange magnetism, away from the center of the page. Irresistibly absorbing and baffling in their complexity, the works taunt and tease, daring us to try to solve the riddle of their construction. But the puzzles prove impervious. Ever trying, ever failing, one begins to sense a kind of Mephistophelian glee at work here, as if someone were delighting in our hopelessness before the task. Finally, reason surrenders — but to a wave of thrill rather than despair. As your eyes wander around the endless loops, the rhythmic energy of the lines becomes a kind of percussion for the viscera, and the mind that wants to solve the problem gives way to the body that knows the real action lies elsewhere.
In the show’s two back rooms, the large series Wanderers delivers the crescendo. Here, Siena’s knotted forms crawl off the paper and, like marchers in defiance of artistic decorum, forge right over the gap and out onto the mat board. So dramatic is this exit from pictorial space that in “Peripherique” (2016) the lattice-like structures form a kind of second frame that hovers around the edges of the picture rectangle, its vast interior voided of content. “Untitled: First Hybrid” (2016) goes further. Here, the drawn elements penetrate the frame itself, becoming a three-dimensional wooden structure that irreverently presides over one of its corners. While some of the clusters become vaguely referential, titles for individual works admonish us otherwise: “Expanded Non-Plankton,” “Displaced Non-Map Fragment.” Deeply funny and curiously moving, the series as a whole seems a poetic provocation about the locus of meaning.
If not in language or reason or “out there” in the universe, where, then, does meaning reside? The show’s title provides a pointer. As a non-discursive kind of writing, drawing speaks to a level of consciousness deeper than thought, bypassing the nagging intellect and going straight for the nervous system. But drawing is also a doing: it’s a seeing and responding and moving and being in a psycho-sensory engagement with the world unlike any other. What makes Siena’s drawings so singularly powerful is that in getting lost in their labyrinths we enter this doing. As if becoming attuned to the excitation of our own molecules, we forget what we can’t know and simply become it. Hiding in plain sight amid the endless profusion of nos is the emphatic yes of being itself. All we need to do to find it is stop looking and join in.
James Siena: Drawing continues at Pace Gallery (537 West 24th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through February 11.