December 3, 2015

Order in Disorder: Labyrinthian Structures at the Johnson Museum

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James Siena’s Labyrinthian Structures, which runs at the Johnson from now until Dec. 20, comprises prints of complex geometric patterns that surround a few wooden sculptures. These sculptures, too, are essentially patterns, and they move from chaotic to ordered: Iain Banks is a neat series of interconnected boxes, while the tightly woven Nuisance Value is almost violent in its randomness.

Siena describes his work as “rigorously geometric,” and it’s always nice as a critic when the artist supplies you with the perfect term for their work. The key word in Siena’s phrase, though, is “rigorous.” In their near-obsessive linear perfection, the pieces on display recall the eerie consistency of diagrams drawn by computers. This was likely Siena’s intention — several of the titles overtly refer to computer-driven processes, like Floppy Recursive Combs — but the effect is a little unsettling. It’s as though Siena intended to remove any hint of human subjectivity from the patterns on display.

Of course, this isn’t necessarily an aesthetic flaw. A lot of the pieces of Labryinthian Structures are just plain pleasant to look at. For instance, Nine Constant Windows, which pits colored boxes full of tiny, straight lines against each other, manages to create the sensation of motion. If you let your eye follow a natural path along the lines, you see that Nine Constant Windows actually contains the faint suggestion of a spiral, a motion from the broad outer rim to a tiny, centered point. This is a cool and effective print, and the choice to use bright primary colors like red and blue for the lines was a good one: In black and white, the overall effect might have been too aloof and distant.

Battery, another print in the exhibit, has a similar effect and is no less visually interesting. Here, Siena replaces his meticulous straight lines with red, ovular shapes which are larger around the print’s edges but smaller and more closely packed near the center. Interwoven into the pattern are a set of converging lines, made from these same circles, which stretch from the print’s four corners into its center. Siena’s use of perspective induces the viewer to seemingly move inward, three-dimensionally, towards the center.

Siena’s overall technique, then, is to create a seemingly disordered pattern that a little sustained attention reveals to have a greater compositional structure. Thanks to this underlying structure, the pieces in this exhibit are simply nice to look at. Aesthetically, Labyrinthian Structures requires no effort to enjoy and can be appreciated by anyone. It’s clear that Siena’s technique, though it recalls computer programs, is not to actually use digital processes in his art but to mimic the repetition and structure of computers using manual, analog tools. Like Daft Punk using analog synthesizers to create electronic music on Random Access Memories, Siena imbues his work with some humanity by sticking with media like bundled sticks and linoleum rather than digital ink.

Yet human warmth is ultimately what Labyrinthian Structures lacks. The Johnson’s description of this exhibit claims that Siena “reaches beyond the confines of abstraction,” but the confines of abstraction are precisely what these pieces most evoke. In fact, rarely does art more clearly deserve the term “abstract.” The art on display has no personal or emotional element that I can discern, nor any symbolic meaning. There’s little hint of the artist’s perspective and not much to which a viewer can relate. Instead, the pieces simply display patterns in and of themselves. You can appreciate the work it must have taken to create these patterns so meticulously, but it’s difficult to connect to Siena’s work, and it seems that keeping the viewer at a distance like this was Siena’s intention.

This isn’t a huge flaw. It’s difficult, after all, to critique a piece of art for achieving what seems more or less to be its intended purpose; I don’t want to criticize a cat for not being a dog. But the mechanized patterns in Labryrinthian Structures, while pleasant to look at, ultimately seem purposeless, as though they were created in a void. These precise, exacting designs aren’t bad art, but the human element — the element that would allow the viewer to connect to an imagined creator — has been almost totally omitted.

Next to Labryrinthian Structures is displayed a collection of drawings and paintings from the late writer Kurt Vonnegut. They’re mostly silly and fantastical; Vonnegut would draw the human face as a series of brightly colored shapes, or a pointlessly complex structure suspended in midair by a single string. Walking through the Johnson, it’s difficult not to draw a contrast between these works and Siena’s. Though Vonnegut’s drawings are goofy, flawed, and required little in the way of technical expertise to create, they still brim with personality and human warmth. These qualities are absent in Labyrinthian Structures. Though the exhibit is visually interesting in its own right, the emphasis on cold, aesthetic abstraction ultimately limits these pieces as art.

Max Van Zile is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected].