“A little bit of slippage”: The Sculptures of Painter James Siena
James Siena: New Sculpture at Pace Gallery
Mar 27, 2015 – Apr 25, 2015
508 West 25th Street (between 10th and 11th avenues)
New York, 212 989 4258
Lee Ann Norman: There are a few different things happening here in this exhibition: the bronzes that you fabricated at the Walla Walla Foundry, the bamboo works on the wall and on pedestals, and the smaller toothpick and grape stem works, but I think most people know you as a painter. What prompted you to gather these sculptures together and show them now?
James Siena: I’ve been talking about doing this for a long time, but when the technology came along to scan and print the small works on a larger scale, I really started thinking more seriously about it. That was about two years ago. I remember saying back in the 80s when I was making the smaller ones — all of which are destroyed now — that it would be really nice to make these in metal so that they would be more permanent. The technology wasn’t there in ’85, ’86 when I was gluing toothpicks to grape stems.
In the paintings, prints, and drawings, you tend to give yourself certain constraints as part of the process. Did that way of working having any effect on these sculptures?
I did follow certain procedures specific to the grape stem structures. The bamboo sculptures, which I started making in the last year and half, are more related to my painting procedures. They are rigorously geometric. In the bamboo ones, I tend to work from the outside in, like I do in a painting. The non-stem toothpick works used various means to create volume and structure: Villa Aurelia (one and two) were built around sticks, Margaret Atwood, Charles Babbage, and Dan Schmidt were built around chopstick sections, and Dorothy Vogel, Anthony Braxton, J.D. Bernal, and Eschatologist were all toothpick, made initially in plane geometry mode and built up from that condition.
Of the bamboo ones displayed here, did one give you particular trouble as you made it? When I look at them, I see the geometric precision alongside the presence of your hand in their free form structure. I have a friend who is a sculptor, but has a background in urban planning. I’ve always admired the freehand straight lines he draws in this nerdy kind of way (laughter). I guess I appreciate precision that is not machined.
There is a little bit of slippage that has to do with the inherent qualities of the bamboo. Some of the sticks are severely warped, so I choose the ones that are the straightest to put into the sculptures. I think Morthanveld: Inspiral, Coalescence, Ringdown (2014-15) was one of the most challenging ones to make. It wasn’t based on right angles, and I was pleased, as I built it, to find a second pentagon being iterated by the outer one and then the smaller pentagons alternating internally, creating a decahedron. I used a process that I employ in other works, which is dividing a surface again and again and again in different ways. In this sculpture, volume is divided.
You were talking about surprises that come up, and yet you give yourself constraints . . . in some ways, that sets you into a direction, but you don’t ever really have an end goal when you make the work.
No. With this one, I was just trying to make a column out of shifted pentagons. Freeman Dyson (2014) came out of these two smaller works, Katherine Dalsimer, and Just the Washing Instructions on Life’s Rich Tapestry, and a motif I used in a painting called Conversation from ’93. It’s one that I’ve worked with and distorted over the years. I thought I could do it in three dimensions, and I think it’s pretty successful. On this larger scale, it reached a level of intensity that I did not anticipate.
Sculpture is not painting, but what do I know about sculpture…? In painting, your eye can take a walk, but in sculpture, your eye has to climb around. Or it has to fly. In a painting, I’m often worried about leaving empty or open space, but in a sculpture it seems to make sense. The density or compression I put into my paintings — that desire can be satisfied with these tight areas in the sculptures where the knots coincide. The openness of these sculptures surprised me despite the fact that they are relatively complex.
I think that’s part of their beauty and appeal. The sculptures are dense but there are these areas of space and lightness within them. As we think through the progress of the sculptures, should we sequence them as first the toothpick and grape stem works, then to the bamboo, and then the bronzes?
I started working on the bronzes in the fall of 2013. I made five trips to Walla Walla. I started the bamboo sculptures when I was doing a residency at the American Academy in Rome. I was working on toothpick things, and we would buy our own groceries, so I would go into the grocery stores and hunt for toothpicks. I never liked the round toothpicks, which was all they had. I had to have flat, tapered ones sent over from the States. But what I did find at the supermarket were bamboo skewers for the barbecue. Knotting the joints with string was born of necessity.
Were you in Rome specifically to work though that idea?
No, it was just an open residency and I wanted to work on light things. I was in the mood to draw. Rome didn’t influence me directly, but I like to think it seeped into my bones. The Baroque in particular — Rome is a Baroque city in spite of its ancient past. The Baroque is ecstatic, broad, and architectural. Perhaps there’s a little Bernini in the bamboo works, come to think of it. Particularly Morthanveld…
Tell me about deciding to work in bronze. That seems like a big step away from the other materials.
I’ve always liked the notion of permanence. I try to make things that last a long time, and the bronzes would survive a fire as long as it didn’t get too hot (laughter). I also just wanted to see what would happen. I still want to see what happens if I make a small work in bronze…just how that would feel in the hand. After awhile, it became more and more necessary for me to include the toothpick works because they inform the process of how these were made. I want to take the clothes off the process. The bronzes are mysterious, and the toothpick works mitigate that.
Contents May Differ (2014) in particular was made in the same way as the smaller sculptures. We scanned and cast toothpicks for me to weld together. I cut them to the right length and worked with a master welder to make the welds. I polished and ground away all of these joints to make them smooth There’s no patina on this one — it’s just sanded, polished, and waxed so it has a different presence than the others, although I really like the outcome of the 3-D printing process. The striations on the bronze — they’re all a result of the printing process.
How long did it take to print them?
Printing the plastic-wax from which the bronze was cast? Many hours, depending on the complexity. I would only go to the foundry once the casting was done to work on the patina. I tend to embrace labor in the work. There is labor in making the original, and there’s labor in doing the patina, but it’s unusual for me to just watch this whole process happen.
Right. This kind of going away and coming back to work on something…
And there’s the leaving it to others. But I love making prints with master printers, and Walla Walla Foundry presents similar opportunities and challenges. The metalsmiths and woodworkers are collaborators more than fabricators. They made suggestions that I really responded to, like how much metal I needed to put on a joint and introducing me to new tools and techniques.
The work titles are unusual. It seems like a lot of different influences and interests inform them.
Most of the works are titled after people, places, or enigmatic word combinations. For example, Mark Strand was a friend of mine and a great poet. There are also historical figures. Barbara Tuchman is a very important historian. She wrote about the First World War, and reading The Guns of August got me started on studying that conflict. It’s an important subject of mine…does it make its way into the work? I’d like to think that it does…strategic geometry, perhaps? R.D. Laing is known for a book from the ‘70s called Knots, which is about psychological conundrums and people getting stuck in cycles of confusion. Anthony Braxton is an experimental musician who occasionally writes compositions using very unconventional notation. I think codifying thought through improvisational form is a very fertile field. In some ways I’m talking about neural connections and using the grape stem as a metaphor for that, but it also has to do with homage and pointing to the fact that abstraction doesn’t really exist.
Yes. I think we’re all trying to find some sort of signifier for “things,” but there are only so many “things” (laughter). We can shuffle them around a little bit, but…
There are many combinations, and I think that’s what makes it so interesting. For quite some time, I did not have any titles for these works, but then I started assigning names to them — invented or real — and thinking about how that could nudge the viewer towards my mind. It’s not just naming them Julius Caesar or Martin Luther King though. I thought about what might happen if someone finds a sculpture named Richard Fynman (2014), and they wonder who that is. There’s a little bit of perversity in that kind of misdirection…
What really moves us leads us to other things. It’s the good kind of rabbit hole to go down.
I really like the trestle tables and pedestals that you used to display the work. Was that your idea to install the work on them?
In my studio, I like to work standing up, so my tables are pretty high. As these began to accumulate, I needed more table space so I bought a hollow core door that I put up on some carts, but they were a little low. Then I went to an estate sale for Milton Resnick and Pat Passlof. There were four sawhorses, but I only bought two because I thought I didn’t have that much space and because I’m an idiot.(laughter) They were a perfect height with the door set on them. Having the air underneath the sculptures felt necessary. These pedestals aren’t standard — they’re two different colors, the base and the top, and there’s an overhang. I think these could be installed in a different way, and I wouldn’t have any requirements.
Now that you have a group done, do you feel like this is something you will continue to do?
I’ve been working on this show for such a long while. I need some time to reflect. I’ve been working on some ink drawings lately, and I have an ongoing group of typewriter drawings I started when I was in Rome. I have about 10 other sculptures I didn’t include in this show, so I will continue with those, and I have a painting that’s in the works… I don’t think I’ve ever been in a place like this: a new show of completely new work that almost nobody saw prior…
This idea of transformation through technology is really exciting, but it’s almost too soon to talk about. We’re entering a time where 3-D printing is really in its infancy. When this technology gets ubiquitous, stuff is going to happen that we can’t predict.