Line is central to everything that James Siena’s makes, from drawings and paintings to structural sculptures made of toothpicks and bamboo skewers. His lines — which run the gamut from pure form and geometric abstraction to evocations of wrinkled, sagging flesh in his portraits of old men — consist of repetition, increment, and pattern.
Siena’s divergent inspirations include the rule-bound procedures of the self-abnegating conceptualist Sol Lewitt, and the madcap elasticity of the cartoon master of the grotesque, Basil Wolverton.His ability to embrace both possibilities as well as transform them into something that is recognizably his own is one reason for his maverick status. The other is his commitment to extending what he can do with line, while never straying from it
In his work from the beginning of this century, Siena has built up his intricate, maze-like compositions by adding one line segment to another according to what he called a visual algorithm. One could say that his self-imposed systems drive the work.
Painting in enamel on aluminum, Siena’s modestly scaled compositions are compressed records of a Sisyphean task, moving ahead line by line (step by step) until he reaches the end, having filled the surface with rigorously choreographed, non-expressive marks. Siena’s attention to detail coupled with his intensity of focus has lifted his repetitive acts into a celebration of meaninglessness, shot through with rapturous pleasure. His paintings and drawings have become a maze of marks that he seems in no hurry to escape. They are odes to anonymous labor.
In his latest exhibition, James Siena: Painting, at Pace Gallery (January 11–February 9, 2019), he has once again changed his approach while remaining true to his use of line, repetition, and pattern. The first change is in materials: he has switched from enamel to acrylic, and from working on modestly scaled aluminum surfaces to large canvases, measuring between 75 by 60 inches and 90 by 70 inches.
The second change — which is necessitated by the first — is in composition. In his enamel paintings, he often sectioned the surface into small areas, which he filled with repetitive linear forms, or he would draw a line in paint that followed the physical contours of the panel. In these works, the divisions broke down the labor involved in making the lines into modular units, or else the line would assiduously demarcate the surface, echoing the rectangular format.
In 10 of the 11 paintings the current show, Siena draws a crooked boundary just inside the canvas’s physical edges. Some of the boundaries may be a single shape, as in “Ssonsuunrrhth,” “Urretru,” and “Strunossc” (all 2018), or two large shapes joined by a narrow bridge, as in “Percussilative Echo” (2017-18), “Concordulation” (2017) and “Sretrisths” (2018), or three pairs of shapes joined together, as in “Tnonde” (2017-18). “Converbatron” (2018) is sectioned into triangles that are further demarcated by curving linear whorls, some of which are contained within the sections, while other go beyond them. The cumulative effect is mesmerizing.
The boundary helps establish the route that the interior lines will take, which embrace divergent possibilities. The line meanders, but it also echoes what is on either side, suggesting a series of eccentric, drifting lines across a fanciful topographic map. If Siena wants to set another possibility going, he might change the color and thickness of the line. The myriad, echoing lines endow the overall shape with a state of flux, enclosing and defining forms that swell, band, and stretch out. To look for an underlying pattern or structure is to not look at these paintings.
The other thing about these paintings — which is what separates Siena from other abstract artists who use line, pattern, and repetition — is his commitment not to repeat himself. This is what he shares with Thomas Nozkowski, another radical dissenter. They rejected the Minimalist paradigm of seriality, which, like many stylistic innovations, rapidly devolved into branding and dependable production. The other connection is their deliberate confounding of the figure-ground relation, which is particularly evident in Siena’s “Spoolstone” (2017) and “Hexscilloid” (2018).
The difference is that Nozkowski’s paintings are based on a personal experience in the widest sense, from seeing a movie to reading a book to walking in the woods. Whatever the inspiration, Siena’s works require him to re-conceive what he can do with line and color.
In the monochromatic “Ssonsunurrhth,” it is easy to get lost in the looking, moving closer and closer and then stepping back, never quite sure where to stand to fully apprehend the oscillating linear elements teeming across the surface. The swaying, drifting patterns of the lines are unpredictable. They conjure up the kind of circuit board found in vintage science fiction films, or perhaps Rapunzel’s hair if she happened to be swimming acrobatically, or an overloaded information map. And even as these and other associations came to mind, I realized how inadequate they were, because none of them accounted for the combination of meandering lines and dense repetition. There is something distressing about these concentrations of linear elements; the more we stare at the lines, the more unsure we become of ever being able to sort them out.
The person standing next to me stood so still, I began to think he was a Duane Hanson sculpture: it was as if he had been hypnotized and instructed to pretend he was a statue. That’s how still he became. Later, I saw him standing equally still in front of another painting. Before he left the gallery, he thanked the people behind the front desk, having clearly entered another zone of being.
This is what I find so compelling about Siena’s recent paintings. The repetition counters the sense of freedom conveyed by the snaking, sinuous lines, but you cannot pin down whether they are about entrapment or freedom. I don’t think Siena sees the condition of painting as an either/or situation but as embracing both, which might also be the way he perceives reality.
If painting is — among things — a record of your passage through time, Siena’s direct, intricate, wandering, rigorous lines are suffused with devotion, bliss, horror and effacement. Instead of being caught between thought and action, Siena keeps finding a way to move forward, even as he knows where it will all end.
James Siena: Painting continues at Pace Gallery (537 West 24th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through February 9.