PaceWildenstein until April 26
545 West 22nd Street between Tenth and Eleventh avenues, 212 989 4258
James Siena’s sprawling show of mostly new works and some older materials, filling PaceWildenstein’s hangar-like 22nd Street premises, is a landmark in the development of this artist. Mr. Siena has, up until now, been known for highly wrought, invariably intimate, abstract works on paper or panel. His imagery entailed intensely concentrated geometric patterns executed freehand while adhering to strict mathematical rules.
His love of rules situated him firmly within a trajectory of modern American art which included such luminaries as Alfred Jensen (whose work Mr. Siena collects) and Sol LeWitt. Exuding the conceptualism of the latter, the funky faux-primitive decorative intensity of the former, Mr. Siena found himself the contemporary examplar of a 40 year survey of rule-based art, including Jensen and LeWitt, organized by Marc Glimcher three years ago.
But now this rule-fiend seems intent on breaking his own cardinal principles. The new work signals two points of departure with major implications for his practice. Firstly, he is starting to work big, not simply in terms of larger surfaces but with scaled-up marks that suggest a freer, faster conception, and a determination to make a stronger initial impression than tended to be the case with the quirky, eccentric vocabulary of his previous work.
And secondly, this relentlessly abstract artist whose style seems to fuse a myriad of ethnographic and art historical precedents has started to admit the figure. This is in the form of grotesque faces, screaming or grimacing old men from German medieval art arriving by way of Ivan Albright and Mad Max Magazine. There are also strange tantric patterned decorations on erotic, onanistic themes. The genie is out of the bottle.
The experience in this richly diverse exhibition is not, however, of transition so much as consolidation: the new works, whether big loopy abstractions in fat confident brushstrokes or the weirdo figuration described above, seem legitimate outgrowths of the precious, tight, miniaturist Mr. Siena of old. And the old religion is still practiced: There are many of gorgeously colored grids of comb motifs, for instance, dating from 2006 or 07 hanging happily alongside the new genres.
The quality of line in the grotesques, meanwhile, relates to the quilt- or lattice-like grids and labyrinths of classic Siena pictures not just formally but in terms, too, of their own morphology: the line seems as subservient to algorithm as depiction, even though they work depictively. In “First Old Man,” (2006) for instance, there is more a sense that the figure emerged from a maze-like algorythm that went awry than that the eye-popping, snarling figure was himself the prime mover of the linear form meandering about the page. And yet this colon-like form, doubling back and forth on itself, does perfectly describe the loose-gums and folding flesh of this wrinkled geriatric.
The increased scale of Mr. Siena’s abstract paintings has opposite emotional implications to his figural drawings. Where the faces and bodies show a goofy, mortal, and thus vulnerable side of the artist’s personality, the large abstract works are cooler, somewhat more ethereal than his tighter, smaller ones. You sense the hand being more distant from the artist’s body in the bigger pieces, generally pages in portrait format at 60 by 40 inches, with cool, fluid results, whereas in the intimate formats, where the aluminum or copper plates, or masonite boards, are less than half that size, you feel the artist’s shoulders hunched over the support, the slim lines exacting a fiercer quality of concentration, more retinal, less muscular.
And yet, in part to contradict this observation while confirming it, one of the most glorious of his new, large format linear abstractions, “Untitled (Brown White)” (2007), betrays a key aspect of his earlier miniaturist modus operandi: That while the line follows a tight logic, it also fluctuates in color intensity in a way that suggests the mind deciding where to go next—the brush is stopping not just to ink but to think. Miraculously a coiling thick line twists and turns to fill the whole page evenly yet never overlaps itself, and rarely (and when it does, good naturedly) butts into itself.
Works in his new genres exude all the excitement of thematic departure, but the most intense pleasures in this show occur when Mr. Siena is on familiar ground—whether because of this viewer’s comfort level, or the artist’s, is a matter of conjecture. Unusually for an artist who is reported to be partially color blind, Mr. Siena achieves exquisite, lryical intensities of color relationship in his works in enamal on metal plates. “Heliopolis, third version” (2006) connotes the sun of its title with a close-knit gold and yellow shot through with dark blue. It is a tight composition in which the gaze is funneled into the center of the plate, while the inexactitude of this handmade image, with the pattern wobbling rather as if it were weaved than painted, reminds of the artifice and ensures a sense of flatness.
While Mr. Siena’s compulsive personal industry is taking his art in disparate directions simultaneously, it is reassuring to find him equally fascinated, and fascinating, in each of them.
A version of this article first appeared in the New York Sun, April 3, 2008 under the heading “Making and Breaking his own Rules”