From the Studio is a celebration of the interests and work of James Siena '79, winner of the 2009-2010 Eissner Artist of the Year. An array of odd and colorful contents of Siena’s creative workspace have found their way to the Johnson Museum, a proper homecoming for the Cornell graduate. The exhibit goes beyond showcasing Siena’s own work, including pieces by fellow artists with whom he has crossed paths. It is perhaps such variety that has allowed the collection to evolve into a personal depiction of the artist himself rather than a mere portfolio.
The exhibit harbors a number of Siena’s enamel-on-aluminum and gouache-on-paper paintings, which are chaotic yet extraordinarily symmetrical, resolutely systematic yet organic and abstract. “In Flatland” is just as the name suggests, a neutral combination of peach on yellow that generates a purposeful lack of dimension. Other paintings give undeniable presence and attention to line and color, appearing as the cross sections of marvelous geodes with labyrinthine strata or as the contour plots of nameless, amorphous entities.
Siena imparts a sort of human quality to his abstract figures in pieces like “Four Figures Connected,” a molten mess of stretched and inseparable limbs. The four figures are not only connected, but impossible to discern. There to perhaps expand on the themes of humanity and entanglement—be it helpless or joyous—is Hans Breder’s “Body-Sculpture,” a gelatin silver print of two bodies whose torsos are replaced by a reflection of their piled legs. Siena has both produced and acquired works that draw viewers into illusions of seamlessness and dismantle recognizable forms into curious configurations and colors that demand closer inspection.
The exhibit takes a darkly, eye-catching turn with “Flat Mole” and “Flat Mouse.” Sinewy strokes of gold paint create the sort of patterns that seem to be characteristic of Siena across the unexpected canvas of pressed rodent carcass. The visibility of tiny paws and contorted, barely identifiable features generates the effect of a monochromatic cubist drawing, contributing to the breadth of the collection.
“Enter the Faces” is an intricate, formulaic arrangement of countless rectangles, based upon carefully contemplated divisions of shapes within shapes within shapes. Like the logic board of some imaginary machine, the composition harbors a math of its own, a profusion of esoteric information. Siena’s Williams and Hammond typewriters add a dimension of technological eclecticism to the exhibit, as does his CURTA Calculating Machine. Between his art and the artifacts in his possession there lies a balance between poetic obsolescence and unattainability.
Select works from the studio—those given to Siena by acquaintances—perhaps represent the artist’s taste for flattened images and his affinity for the challenge of eliminating the third dimension. Anonymous aerial photographs compress the earth into single planes that can perhaps be compared to microscope slides; buildings and patches of land appear to writhe across the lens like innocuous bacteria. Katie Merz’s “Cancer,” on the other hand, utilizes the movement, placement, and density of clownish colors and hair-thin pen lines to convey a sense of disguised malignance. A variegated gouache mutant spreads ominously from a single corner of the page.
Visual themes seem to take on a more acute presence when they are reduced to a single, expository plane. Two dimensions allow raw shapes and lines and to be the sole descriptor of objects and tone rather than the depth and shadow you find in three. In spite of their being constructed by different hands and various artistic intentions, many of the pieces in James Siena: From the Studio are mysteriously unified in their treatment of space and their tendency to leave drawing surfaces just as they are—planar, concise—delivering many cross-sections of life that are sometimes hard to decipher, though steadfastly expressive.