Gallery Going, by DAVID COHEN          
      A version of this article first appeared in the
New York Sun, November 17, 2005


McKenzie Fine Art

Peter Blum

James Siena one, one... 2005
enamel on aluminum, 22-3/4 x 29 inches
Courtesy PaceWildenstein

James Siena is like a one-man lost civilization. An odd mix of diversity and unity, his work is uniquely his own, yet charged with a suprapersonal force more familiar from enthnographic artefacts.  His first exhibition at his new gallery, PaceWildenstein, offers a dozen new paintings and two dozen drawings that extend a pictorial language he has made familiar in the last fifteen years of complex lattices, at once tight and wayward, and repeating patterns of mesh, of herring bone, or of bento box-like structures of rectangles within rectangles, Russian-doll like in their endless succession. His use of sign-painter’s enamel on metal lends his compelling, enigmatic works surfaces of cool succulence, glowing but distant.

There are numerous shades of other artists and cultures—this viewer is reminded, on the collective side, of African textiles, Maori tatoos and Tantric art and such individuals as Gustav Klimt (his decorative backgrounds), Joaquin Torres Garcia, and the obsessive outsider artist Friedensreich Huntertwasser.  Rather than coming across as referential, Mr. Siena seems something of an outsider himself, plumbing his own depths to arrive at an authentic, primordial intensity.

He couldn’t be less of an outsider, as it happens: a Cornell graduate, a star of the last Whitney Biennnial, and an acknowledged leader of his generation, he’s as clued in as any artworld insider.  But his abstract language has a remarkable freedom from either the old fashioned modernist fusion of disparate primitive and prehistoric influences into a generalized soup of Ur-forms, or a postmodernist deliberate cacophany of styles.  Instead his weirdly exquisite, compulsively detailed, fanatically methodical designs seem disarmingly practical, charged with the kind of energy you might get in a precolumbian proto-computer, or cosmologies from a vanished religion.

This purposiveness is hard won, for Mr. Siena works within stringent rules. Homo ludens—the man who plays—his drawings are elaborations of what he himself describes as visual algorithms.  Each work has its own predetermined set of procedures in relation to which the results both adhere and deviate, as a title like “Coffered Divided Sagging Grid (with glitch)” reveals.  Despite his art having great warmth, charm and empathy, Mr. Siena is, par excellence, a conceptual artist, as he is interested in seeing what happens if you submit your art to the realization of a preconceived idea. 

Some pictures, like “one, one” 2005 which has been accepted as a gift by the Whitney, are hard-edged geometric arrangements that follow a given mathematical pattern, in this case the Fibonnaci sequence. It is a kind of graph of horizontal stripes colored in vertical rectangles that apparently follows the famous mathematical sequence in color as well as distancing.  Others, like “Distorted Overlapping Lattice” (from the same year) look spontaneous in comparison— a layered arrangement of netting, it slightly recalls Brice Marden in that you can almost read, or misread, figures in the loops and lassoos—although they are actually as tightly elaborated along their own lines.  Works veer from whimsical seeming arrangements that take line for a walk to mandalas that pulsate with centeredness: Perhaps because Mr. Siena has been painted by Chuck Close, “Heliopolis”, a gouache from 2004, put me in mind of Mr. Close’s almost occult portrayal of a Svengali-like Lucas Samaras.

Barbara Takenaga C-Chan 2005
acrylic on linen stretched over board, 70 X 60 inches
Courtesy McKenzie Fine Art

The nutty, trippy, transcendentally labor intensive aspect of Mr. Siena’s work places him in the company of a broad spectrum of contemporary artists whose art taps a finely wrought psychedia. Peers in this realm would certainly include Bruce Pearson and Fred Tomaselli. The Whitney Museum’s recent “Remote Viewing” exhibition of painters of invented worlds, and the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art’s survey of art that explores the narcotic, “Ecstasy: In and About Altered States” point to a spaced-out strand in the zeitgeist.

Barbara Takenaga is a priestess in this cult.  She creates sumptuous decorations of mind boggling complexity that fill you with a sense of awe not just because of the exhilerating cosmos they depict but because of a sense of the heightened consciousness required for such creation. Once the eye adjusts to a sense of gaudy overload, and overcomes the prejudice of feeling you might have seen such imagery on the cover of a molecular chemistry textbook, it becomes clear that she is an image crafter of formidable power.

Each of the fourteen paintings on display, which range from 12 by 10 inches to 70 x 60, a significant jump in size for this artist, must have required staggering feats of patience and mental organization.  “Rubazu” and “Corona #2 (Golden), both of 2005, are spirals packed with vibrant balls of radically disjunctive scale.  At the heart of each vortex are tiny little dots that such the eye into infinite space.

She favors a much tighter, neater delivery than we get in Mr. Siena, with a bright, dense all-overness and dazzling synthetic color.  As a result, we don’t get the sense, as we do in Mr. Siena, of a hand leading directly to mental presence.  But for an art that seems at first to be all about special effects there is a surprising amount of surface pleasure to be had in Ms. Takenaga.  This comes out especially in a play of solid against acqueous paint, which corresponds with a theme of flatness versus depth, as in “Gold + Red” 2005, where the orbs, distributed in an almost Paisley-like spiral, each have a sense of being a contained world, filled with wobbly light.

Suzan Frecon Composition with Red Earth and Red Earth 2005
oil on linen, 108 x 87-1/2 inches
Courtesy Peter Blum Gallery

While Ms. Takenaga complements Mr. Siena’s near-psychotic obsessiveness, his timeless, archaic quality resonates with another remarkable exhibition opening today, also a debut with a new gallery, Suzan Frecon at Peter Blum. She has half a dozen large paintings, three of them in fact diptychs of horizonal canvases stacked to nine foot high by 87-3/8 inches. 

Her art can be described, in a contradiction that also recalls Mr. Siena, as hand-made hard edge: Patiently crafted, unegotistical, lovingly carved-out forms whose sense of the definitive feels personally won rather than merely given.

A consumate colorist, Ms. Frecon concocts her own mixtures of oil and pigment, favoring subtly discrepant tones rather than contrastive hues.  “composition with red earth and red earth,” 2005, uses the stacked canvses to posit one tone of terracotta against another, the top slightly more paprika, the bottom chocolate.

While some of the forms are strictly rectangular, a favorite motif is a curved shape of vaguely Islamic reference, somewhere between a turban and a dome, depending whether you read them in positive or negative against their ground.

Siena until January 28, 2006 (534 W 25 Street, between 10 and 11 Avenues, 212 929 7000)

Takenaga through December 17 (511 West 25 Street, between 10 and 11 Avenues, 212 989 5467)

Frecon through January 14, 2006 (99 Wooster Street, between Prince and Spring, 212 343 0441)

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