April 18, 2010

Working in Contradictions

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Immediately apparent in James Siena’s ’79 works is the presented paradox. With a simplified form of mark-making (usually just lines or circles) Siena creates works of great complexity and depth. Intensely patterned, Siena’s works evoke both the macroscopic and the microscopic — like looking from an airplane or through a microscope. Despite their intricacy and complexity, the works maintain a structure and order while simultaneously evoking a sensationalism — an excitement.

According to the artist himself, that was the goal.

“I just wanted […] to make an image that was both internally consistent and mildly overwhelming,” he told attendees at last week’s gallery talk.

Friday evening, Siena was presented with the 2009-2010 Eissner Artist of the Year Award. Established in 1997 by the Cornell Council for the Arts and the Committee on the Arts of the University Council, the award honors Cornell alumni who have achieved success in the arts. Past recipients have included Pulitzer Prize winning author Junot Diaz ’95, Tony award winning director Gene Saks ’43 and MacArthur grant recipient and lighting designer Jennifer Tipton ’58.

From Jan. 16 to Apr. 18, The Johnson featured From the Studio, an exhibition of Siena’s work from nearly three decades. Working with curator Andrea Inselmann, Siena selected paintings and drawings from his personal collection as well as works from contemporaries. In addition, the exhibition featured pieces from Siena’s extensive collection of antique typewriters and calculating machines.

Last Friday, recounting his childhood in Silicon Valley and Palo Alto, Siena cited the development of the computer as a “powerful moment in American life,” one that would ultimately influence his art. Concerns with artificial intelligence and computer programming are evident in Siena’s work, which features intensely patterned lines often derived from algorithms or mathematical sequences. More than technological innovation, Siena acknowledged a debt to California for the rugged, delicate beauty of the Sierras, where “you could really feel extreme existence.”

But, as Siena admitted, Cornell was to play an equally significant role in his artistic development. Siena recounted his Cornell experience with anecdotes both serious and silly — from getting “really stoned” before drawing class to his first exhibition at Moosewood. According to Siena, the art department’s unique approach is best captured by its location. Situated on the Arts Quad, the fine arts were integrated with the “so-called serious disciplines,” giving Siena a wide exposure to other academic fields. In particular, Siena cited Prof. Peter Kahn, Mathematics, as especially influential in his artistic development. Kahn taught a class about techniques and material processes in painting and printmaking. Here, Siena first developed his interest in the artistic process itself, a hallmark of his later work.

As Siena himself said, “You can have respect for materials and techniques and still be as new as you want to be ….What I do is trying to make thought visible, trying to take apart the visual process in order to make us think about how we think. ”

Since the artistic process itself is so central to Siena’s work, he included live demonstrations of the self-imposed “rules” he created for each piece of art. For most of his work, Siena begins with a set of rules to follow while creating the piece. As he puts it, he’s “setting up a sort of challenge” for himself. In the first slide shown, he demonstrated how he created a pattern from the numbers “5” and “3.” According to Siena, the work grew out of his desire to create something simultaneously unitary yet intricate, a concept that developed from his interest in fractals. His other works contain similarly self-imposed restrictions about whether or not lines can touch, the use of discontinuous line, and working in a certain direction. Like the pieces based on fractals, Siena’s other works contain mathematical motifs, such as the Fibonacci pattern or the golden mean. After creating a work, Siena usually expands on it in another piece. He will distort the pattern, add a new rule, or start the pattern from a new location.

“I wanted simplicity on one level but complexity on another, and I wanted that perverse contradiction to be front and center,” Siena said of his work.

Recently, Siena’s work has moved away from pure abstraction. During the Bush administration, Siena’s work developed a much more political message. Still maintaining his compositional density and complexity, Siena began applying his hallmark patterns to faces. Like his other works, these works are intensely linear. But, rather than emphasizing a mathematical sequence, these later works emphasize a sequence of longevity: wrinkles. In these “old man drawings,” Siena questions the wisdom of the Bush administration, contrasting what he saw as Bush’s ignorance with the real-life experiences of war veterans.

While Siena’s more recent works are decidedly contemporary, he emphasized that his interest in material processes derives from his respect for permanence. He wants to make works that last, that have access to “generations yet unborn.” As Siena joked, artists often have better luck communicating with future generations than with present ones. To this end, Siena sees the museum as a cultural “time machine.”

“I think of museums as very different from galleries,” Siena said. “Museum’s are here to preserve work … A gallery is a store.”

If the attendance at Siena’s gallery talk is any indication, his work — and the museum —are here to stay.­­

Original Author: Emily Greenberg