Thursday, June 26th, 2003

James Siena at BravinLee Programs and Online at Feigen Contemporary

“James Siena: Drawings”
Gorney, Bravin & Lee until July 31
534 W. 26 Street, between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues, 212-352-8372

Feigen Contemporary until August 9
535 W. 20th Street, between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues, 212-929-0500

image courtesy Gorney Bravin & Lee, New York
image courtesy Gorney Bravin & Lee, New York

If Paul Klee could famously “take line for a walk,” then James Siena has taken it to the wild side. A stunning, extensive display of 78 of his drawings fills the spacious Chelsea premises of Gorney Bravin + Lee. While some works date back to the mid-1980s, the majority are from the last few years. During this time, Mr. Siena has regularly exhibited paintings. Although he works on a pronouncedly small, sometimes even miniature scale, his prolificacy is remarkable precisely because of the mind-boggling feats of concentration his work entails. (The works on paper, incidentally, have an untraditional relationship to the paintings in that they tend to be larger, are no more exploratory, are equally colorful, and are at least as sharply defined.)

Mr. Siena has the involved totality of vision of an outsider or a primitive. Not that this stops him from being art-world savvy, of positioning himself in relation to recent art and current issues. Like his peers Bruce Pearson and Fred Tomaselli – with whom he shares an almost retro penchant for “trippy” psychedelic effects – his idiom collapses the division between process and product. There is an intensity of craft that undermines the quaint critical notion that how the work was made is merely the artist’s business. On the contrary, recognition of the meditative detachment that went into their facture puts the viewer into a similar state. This is art that makes you want to say “Om!”

Mr. Siena’s mind is a museum without walls. Cultural references and associated sensibilities range from African textiles, the decorative lozenges in Gustav Klimt, Bridget Riley’s swirls, and Moghul miniatures, to the outsider visions of Friedensreich Huntertwasser and James Castle, Tantric art, Escher, Aztec architecture, Haring’s grafitti-inspired notation, and Maori tattoos. Any list is partial, yet the more eclectic it gets, the more, counter-intuitively, it affirms a unity of purpose in the artist. All this stuff is not so much source material as points of affinity. It is as if, in his higher aesthetic-meditative state, the artist tapped decoration’s collective consciousness. The beauty here, however, is that he doesn’t lose sight of the cultural value of diversity. He unironically reconnects abstract painting to a deeper wellspring of pattern generation. The minimalist grid mutates into a spider’s web.

The key to understanding Mr. Siena is to see that he works algorithmically. In classic pictorial aesthetics, form is discovered in relations between static components. Without necessarily overriding this criterion, Mr. Siena’s art sets a different dynamic in motion, one that has to do with the rhythms of unmechanical repetition. In his scaled-down, slowed-down pictorial world, fluctuation is a subtle equivalent of gesture, mutation a kind of narrative.

At best, narrative incident reveals itself quietly and unforced, as in the accordion-like bulging and squashing rows of “Double Recursive Combs, Red and Black” (2003), a gouache that recalls African design motifs. Other times, however, narrative seems imposed, as in the graphite drawing, “Partially Coffered Unknot” (2003), which has a dense knottedness at the top, almost depicted in perspective, that gives way to a single thread at the bottom: a heavy-handed plot by Mr. Siena’s standards, threatening his gentle equilibrium.

This is not to say that his art conveys a single mood. On the contrary, there is a welcome range of temper. But formally speaking, all-overness suits Mr. Siena best, as it frees him to introduce a subtle play of layering versus flatness. In a dense, pulsating arrangement of interlocking shapes entitled “T-Ramparts” (2003), for instance, modulations in the pressure of the pencil send a shimmering wave across the sheet, to magical effect.


David Brody Fragment of a Much Larger Thing: Serpent, 2003 ink and pencil, variable dimensions
David Brody, Fragment of a Much Larger Thing: Serpent, 2003 ink and pencil, variable dimensions

OnLine, a sprawling 38-artist salon at Feigen Contemporary, was curated by Charlie Finch, the subtlety of whose contribution to aesthetics is indicated by the title of the book he co-authored: “Most Art Sucks.” On the evidence of this show, he has a correspondingly robust appetite for the trashy and the illustrational. Which isn’t to say his taste is necessarily uninteresting: Walter Robinson’s washy porno playing cards and Hilary Harkness’s coyly lesbian comic-strip adventures are enormous fun as ever. Luckily, Mr. Finch enlisted two highbrow friends, George Negroponte and Rob Storr, to co-select with him. Three distinct sensibilities brought diverse talents to the table; undiplomatically, published statements by each name names.

The theme of line and drawing does not seem to have held back any selector from artists pursuant of neither. But there are fine works and surprising juxtapositions that vindicate their efforts. For instance, the sharp, primly architectonic wall drawing by Storr-choice David Brody at the front of the gallery relates in its circumscribed mutations to the fey, ethereal, but in its way equally obsessive romanticism of Negroponte-nominee Eric Holzman, hanging downstairs.

Eric Holzman Alboro 2003 Egg tempra watercolor on paper, 77 1/2 x 60 inches framed
Eric Holzman, Alboro 2003 Egg tempra watercolor on paper, 77 1/2 x 60 inches framed

Two artists who usefully test definitions of drawing here are Karin Davie, whose “Separations in Deep Yellow” extends her Op Art interest in curvy, wavy lines into sculptural relief, with pigment and zippers sunk into cascading paper, and Alexander Ross, whose giant untitled gouache with acrylic from 2002 pushes the linear and the painterly up against each other in an energizing collision of languages.

This article first appeared in The Sun, June 26, 2003.