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James Siena Drawing


James Siena Drawing

537 West 24th Street, New York

January 12 – February 11, 2017


Lord of the Lines James Siena’s Recent Drawings Joe Fyfe

If something is done freely, the activity proliferates its own distinctions, grows to contain an order not of control but of more choices.1 —Donald Judd on John Chamberlain, 1962 Characteristically, James Siena’s new drawings are exuberantly introverted. This most recent selection, like the Beatles’ White Album, has lots of different things going on. This essay will be a little like that, too. …it’s their best since Revolver, it has a sense of the immediate, the makeshift and the incomplete.2 —Richard Goldstein, review of the White Album, 1968 There is much rethinking in evidence: liberties explored beyond the support; hybrids of

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sculpture and drawing; casual, propositional notations and textual declarations. Amalgamations of gentle marks spread beyond the confines of the rectangular sheets, working their way across the gap in between and onto the framing mats. Various miniscule strokes made with a Rapidograph pen amass as airborne viruses, wafting semi-granular tattoos or some advancing rash. On closer inspection, an embrace of the surface plane—a preoccupation with the pellicular dimension, locating the marks on or in the skin of the support. Stéphane Mallarmé expressed the desire to make a poem in the paper, not on it, like an embossment. Mallarmé’s idea of wanting to create an ideal world within his poetry points to an interiority, as do tattoos, oddly enough— and these drawings perhaps evidence this desire as well. In 2003 I wrote a long essay about James Siena’s work out of sheer curiosity.3 I don’t claim to understand him, but I still keep up with the work more than a dozen years on. Artists are mysterious. Perhaps collecting art is a desire to own paradoxical objects made by ultimately unknowable producers. Siena is also a collector. This activity, along with many other ancillary interests, informs his intricate pictures: his fascination with historic military strategies, his storage shelves of wine, art, antique typewriters, and George Ohr pots. He has a penchant for complete works—a CD compilation of the works for player piano by Conlon Nancarrow, the Complete Joe Frank “Radio Noir” Collection, etc.

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This underlines his interest in art as completion. He has said about his way of working, “If I want a sweater, I have to knit all the stitches.” We were both in Paris at the same time many years ago. On separate occasions we visited Shirley Jaffe. It would have been interesting to have been there and watched them. Both artists are “diggers” (my term): nonconformists who look for a deep groove, determined to make something lasting. Jaffe abandoned Abstract Expressionism in the early 1960s. She ditched improvisation and lyricism for a flat, elementary space. It gradually became more complex. So it is with Siena’s progress: from choosing a simple component in order to realize it more fully, to watching as it gains in complexity and variety through constancy of attention. When he visited Jaffe, though they were both American, they spoke French. One time I suggested that he visit Southeast Asia. Siena said he would be too uncomfortable in countries where he didn’t know the language. In a given situation he always needs to know the routes, the worn paths that exist, or at least know how to make them. Language shows a route through a country. Siena and his wife, the artist Katia Santibañez, once resided off-season on Île du Levant, a naturist island near the Riviera. This choice of retreat is another algorithm, another artistic program of freedom within carefully managed constraints. In this case, it comprised 1. being naked 2. speaking French 3. circulating among other bodies within a circumscribed area 4. residing there for several months.

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Reading Lord of the Flies for the first time recently, I thought of James: “When he begins a drawing he is lost on an island. He invents a way to survive. Trying to keep the fire lit. Lord of the Lines.” The new drawings that slip beyond the paper rectangle are called the Wanderers series. Rulebreaker, (2016; p. 37), is a combination of dark sepia and rose ink that looks like a loose chain of interlinked macraméd tubes. It encircles the paper support, framing mat and gap, only poking itself, like a snake’s head, into the remaining white interior space from middle right. It is remarkable that Siena’s claustrophobic interiors have suddenly engaged with such openness. Another new series is the Manifolds—a departure from previous placements within the given rectangular format. Here, the soft illusionism of Siena’s style takes on greater form. His drawing activity seems to coalesce into depictions of things: they verge on the object-like. The edges of the paper only contain them, almost like a cage or a box. Previously, the activity needed the boundaries of the paper or other support as a stopping and starting point. This new opening-up must have come through his sculpture. The recursive vectors in his two-dimensional work became alive, independent. The more recent drawings are more dimensional in their own right, taking on characteristics of shape. They remind me a little of snakeskins, as if one could peel off sections of his older work and recombine them in some elaborate crafting of a cat’s cradle or dream catcher, looping them through one another and retying them in odd places.

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The Manifolds are not centered. They float in undetermined space within the borders of the paper. In the case of the graphite-on-paper Large Manifold, Second Version (2016; p. 58) it’s on the bottom right. There is an abundance of white space, but the intense concentration of marking is still paramount. The graphite strokes collect into rubbed woody knobs and elbows. These semi-illusionistic rounded thicknesses twist and interlace into a form, like a hand-carved box-spring abandoned on the page. It reminds me of one of the strange inventions that might be found in a book by the proto-Surrealist French novelist and poet Raymond Roussel. This particular drawing, among other Manifolds, affords insight into Siena’s development. The placement of the Manifolds echoes a series of three-color lithograph and screenprint editions made by Frank Stella for Gemini G.E.L. in 1971 and 1972 as well as his Black Series I from 1967. These editioned works were based on Stella’s parallelpinstriped paintings from ten years earlier. Stella sets each rendering of the paintings in elevation, resting on an implied platform on the lower left of the rectangle of paper (and in Black Series I, on the lower right) rather than centering it. Additionally unusual in the editions is Stella’s reductive strategy. He found a scribbly approximation of the flat painted lines by concentrating and filling in the lines with tiny lithograph pencil strokes. The dense, dullish surface energy of the original paintings was pressed into printed representation. Perhaps Stella was influenced by his Minimalist compatriot Carl Andre, who compressed sculptural space with his metal-plate floor sculptures.

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Interestingly, Siena originally knew the Stella series as an adolescent, and now owns two prints from one of the editions. Siena said recently that he was conscious of adopting their compositional placement. A term he used, “compression strategy,” describes the peculiar energy he relies on. The Manifolds excavate a buried challenge: to make drawings that possess the boiled-down recalcitrance of the Stella prints without the previous existence of sizable paintings. Hans Hartung came to abstraction after he saw that the ink marks in Rembrandt’s sketches were expressive. He built a system of abstract painting based on the energy he found in Rembrandt. One can speculate that Siena’s work is a product of Stella’s design of concentrically banded early Minimalist paintings and the homely inked lines found in underground comics. Siena regimented these lines à la Stella, then coiled them back on themselves in repetition. James Siena is a maverick American abstractionist. His idiosyncratic works are different from those of artists who build their careers based on the zeitgeist—the perceived definitions of the present moment. By contrast, Siena is a more intuitive artist. Still, he seems to have very clear art-historical precedents. His work is far from the merely “personal,” and there is little narcissistic regard for eccentricity for its own sake. If Stella is a given, then Siena’s work is just as much about internal meaning—an investigation of the pictorial fictions from which all works of art are built. External meanings—in other words, what is going on in the world—remain in the balance.

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Whereas Stella is an artist whose work is a referendum on the rhetorical and pictorial structures of Abstract Expressionism, Siena, similarly but of a later generation, makes severely executed negations based on abstraction’s heritage, countering scale, gesture, and the stretched canvas, as well as other late-modernist conventions. Siena’s work also shares characteristics with the Neo-Geo movement of the late 1980s, which removed the art object’s property of suggestive freedom—its ability to leave its ultimate meaning uncertain. In the essay “Written Clothing” by Roland Barthes from his collection The Fashion System, the author states that language, in the form of a caption that accompanies a photograph, freezes the number of possibilities of what an image might mean: “Words determine a single certainty.”4 He further states that language used in this way serves to “disappoint” the image.5 This describes the airless feeling present when encountering Peter Halley’s pseudo-modernist abstractions and Haim Steinbach’s framing shelves and, most relevantly, Sherrie Levine’s quasi-abstract game board paintings and her re-photographed canonical photographs, drawings, and watercolors that render “modernist masterpieces” by Miró, de Kooning, and others on a reduced scale. These works are not photographs, for the most part, but their specific agenda, serving theories that displace the primacy of authorship, amounts to an extensive captioning. Levine’s careful, slight drawings based on known full-scale works of art are another instance of drawing as reduction and compression.

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Siena is a recipient of these earlier attempts to vacate subjectivity. His interpretation is more fanciful, like that of a medieval scribe selflessly tooling endlessly small perfections of spiritual text or an anonymous limner who becomes lost in the sheer redundancy of an exaggerated enlargement of minutiae. Both result in an alteration of attention. The viewer and author lose sight of the sovereignty of the artist in the self-erasing task. John Berger defined content as what the artist finds within his subject matter: “The function of the form of the work is to concentrate, to hold the pressure of both the artist’s and the spectator’s experience of the content.”6 Many artists saw in Sherrie Levine a demonstration that distilled and impersonal attention to any subject matter would hold the spectator and the artist in an equivalent but provocative standoff. A Siena drawing is an indigestible puzzle; it won’t settle down into meaning, metaphor, or appearance. Taking a stone from the right pocket of my greatcoat, and putting it in my mouth, I replaced it in the right pocket of my greatcoat by a stone from the right pocket of my trousers, which I replaced by a stone from the left pocket of my trousers, which I replaced by a stone from the left pocket of my greatcoat, which I replaced by the stone which was in my mouth, as soon as I had finished sucking it.7 —Samuel Beckett, Molloy, 1951/1955 The Lord of the Flies is the name given to a boar’s head mounted on a stick that had been hunted down by the savage boys. It was the author William Golding’s primary symbol for evil or the pitiless gaze of the universe. That is another theme

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here. In Siena’s notebooks, there is page after page of nihilist homilies. “We Must Embrace Futility Because To Know True Meaninglessness Is The Only Real Form Of Joy,” reads one. The text drawings from the notebooks are all done in a curly haunted-storybook font. Another larger ink-on-paper work, Let There Be Nothing… (2016; p. 63) has similar lettering in black ink on a teeny-stroked red ink background. This statement ends “…Listen Children To The Universe Ignoring You.” This trove of statements as drawings seems a key to the ongoing narrative of Siena’s labyrinthine corpus, with a point of reference in literary existentialism. Siena, like many artists, does not so much make ironic commentary as much as he embodies ironies. Looking over the new work, which includes previously unmentioned oddities such as a drawing with a wooden molecular structure that grows like an abscess onto its frame and another surrounding a found fragment of tree branch, we perhaps begin to see Siena embodying some strain of a Samuel Beckett character. His drawings, paintings, prints, and sculpture are activated longueurs, ennui put to task, much like Beckett’s Molloy attempting to describe, over six or seven pages of the novel, his trying to find a satisfying algorithm that will allow him to suck stones at reliably even intervals. So it is with Siena’s propositional structures and sketches: they are like visions of cathedrals devoted to meaninglessness.

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Endnotes 1

Donald Judd, “In the Galleries [John Chamberlain]," in Complete Writings 1959–1975 (Halifax: The Press of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, 2005), 46.

2

Richard Goldstein, “The Beatles: Inspired Groovers,” The New York Times, December 8, 1968.

3

Joe Fyfe, “Strange Loops,” Art on Paper (January/February 2003): 44–49.

4

Roland Barthes, The Fashion System, trans. Matthew Ward and Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1983), 13.

5

Barthes, 17.

6

John Berger, Permanent Red (London: Methuen, 1969), 75.

7

Samuel Beckett, Molloy, trans. Patrick Bowles (New York: Grove Press, 1955), 93.

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Manifold (Graphite) I 2015 graphite on paper 11 1â „2 x 9 1â „4" 13


Crabtree Meadows July 30, '15 2015 graphite on paper 5 1⁄2 x 3 3⁄8" 14


Crabtree Meadows Manifold 2015 graphite and colored pencil on paper 8 3â „4 x 7" 15


12-Hole and 5-Hole Manifolds 2015 graphite on paper 11 5â „8 x 9 1â „4" 16


Manifold in Red + Black 2015 ink on paper 11 5⁄8 x 9 1⁄4" 17


Rulebreaker

2016 ink on paper and museum board 16 11/16 x 10 ž" 18


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Little Blue Manifold 2015 blue ink on paper 5 3⁄4 x 3 3⁄4" 20


Manifold I 2015 brown ink on paper 11 5â „8 x 9 1â „4" 21


Manifold III 2015 graphite on paper 11 5⁄8 x 9 1⁄4" 22


Manifold IV 2015 black ink on paper 11 5⁄8 x 9 1⁄4" 23


Ox-Bow Manifold 2015 black and blue ink on paper 9 7⁄8 x 6 1⁄4" 24


Manifold V 2015 black and blue ink on paper 11 5⁄8 x 9 1⁄4" 25


Manifold VI 2015 black and blue ink on paper 11 5⁄8 x 9 1⁄4" 26


Manifold VII 2015 ink and watercolor on paper 11 5â „8 x 9 1â „4" 27


Rulebreaker

2016 ink on paper and museum board 16 11/16 x 10 ž" 28


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Manifold VIII 2015 ink and watercolor on paper 11 5â „8 x 9 1â „4" 30


Manifold IX 2015 ink and watercolor on paper 11 5â „8 x 9 1â „4" 31


Red + Blue Manifold 2015 ink on paper 11 x 7" 32


Manifold X 2015 ink and watercolor on paper 11 5â „8 x 9 1â „4" 33


Rulebreaker

2016 ink on paper and museum board 16 11/16 x 10 ž" 34


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Rulebreaker 2016 ink on paper and museum board 17 1⁄4 x 14 5⁄8 x 1 1⁄8" 36


Displaced Valve 2016 ink on paper and museum board 14 1⁄2 x 11 1⁄4 x 1 1⁄8" 38


Slipped Manifold 2016 ink on paper and museum board 14 3â „4 x 13 x 1 1â „8" 39


Displaced Non-Slice 2016 ink on paper and museum board 14 1⁄2 x 11 5⁄8 x 1 1⁄8" 40


Displaced Non-Map Fragment 2016 ink on paper and museum board 17 1⁄4 x 14 3⁄4 x 1 1⁄8" 41


Displaced Non-Map Fragment (First Large Version) 2016 ink on paper and museum board 28 1⁄4 x 33 1⁄2 x 1 1⁄2" 42


Escaped Non-Map Fragment 2016 ink on paper and museum board 14 1⁄4 x 11 1⁄4 x 1 1⁄8" 44


Wounded Oversized Fragment 2016 ink on paper and museum board 14 1⁄4 x 11 1⁄4 x 1 1⁄8" 45


Expanded Non-Plankton 2016 ink on paper and museum board 11 5⁄8 x 9 1⁄4 x 1 1⁄8" 46


Perpendicular Non-Map Fragment 2016 ink on paper and museum board 11 5⁄8 x 8 1⁄4 x 1 1⁄8" 47


Peripherique 2016 ink on paper and museum board 26 1⁄2 x 32 x 1 1⁄2" 48


Displaced Split Valve 2016 ink on paper and museum board 9 3⁄8 x 7 5⁄8 x 1 1⁄8" 50


Shifted Merged Manifold (Yellow/Blue) 2016 ink on paper and museum board 14 7â „8 x 13 x 1 1â „8" 51


Two Perforated Non-Organisms 2016 ink on paper and museum board 52

28 1⁄4 x 33 1⁄2 x 1 1⁄2"


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Large Manifold, First Version 2016 graphite on paper 20 x 24 3â „4" 56


Large Manifold, Second Version 2016 graphite on paper 20 x 25 " 58


Large Manifold, Third Version 2016 graphite on paper 20 x 25 1â „4" 60


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Let There Be Nothing... 2016 ink on paper 8 1â „2 x 6 7â „8" 63


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Manifold (Graphite) I

14

Crabtree Meadows July 30, '15

15

Crabtree Meadows Manifold

16

12-Hole and 5-Hole Manifolds

17

Manifold in Red + Black

20

Little Blue Manifold

21

Manifold I

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Manifold III

23

Manifold IV

24

Ox-Bow Manifold

2015 graphite on paper 11 1⁄2 x 9 1⁄4"

2015 graphite on paper 5 1⁄2 x 3 3⁄8"

2015 graphite and colored pencil on paper 8 3⁄4 x 7"

2015 graphite on paper 11 5⁄8 x 9 1⁄4"

2015 ink on paper 11 5⁄8 x 9 1⁄4"

2015 blue ink on paper 5 3⁄4 x 3 3⁄4"

2015 brown ink on paper 11 5⁄8 x 9 1⁄4"

2015 graphite on paper 11 5⁄8 x 9 1⁄4"

2015 black ink on paper 11 5⁄8 x 9 1⁄4"

2015 black and blue ink on paper 9 7⁄8 x 6 1⁄4"

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Manifold V

26

Manifold VI

27

Manifold VII

30

Manifold VIII

31

Manifold IX

32

Red + Blue Manifold

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Manifold X

2015 black and blue ink on paper 11 5⁄8 x 9 1⁄4"

2015 black and blue ink on paper 11 5⁄8 x 9 1⁄4"

2015 ink and watercolor on paper 11 5⁄8 x 9 1⁄4"

2015 ink and watercolor on paper 11 5⁄8 x 9 1⁄4"

2015 ink and watercolor on paper 11 5⁄8 x 9 1⁄4"

2015 ink on paper 11 x 7"

2015 ink and watercolor on paper 11 5⁄8 x 9 1⁄4" 37 Rulebreaker

2016 ink on paper and museum board 17 1⁄4 x 14 5⁄8 x 1 1⁄8" 38

Displaced Valve

39

Slipped Manifold

2016 ink on paper and museum board 14 1⁄2 x 11 1⁄4 x 1 1⁄8"

2016 ink on paper and museum board 14 3⁄4 x 13 x 1 1⁄8"


40

Displaced Non-Slice

41

Displaced Non-Map Fragment

42

Displaced Non-Map Fragment (First Large Version)

44

Escaped Non-Map Fragment

2016 graphite on paper 20 x 25 1⁄4"

45

Wounded Oversized Fragment

2016 ink on paper 8 1⁄2 x 6 7⁄8"

63

Let There Be Nothing...

46

Expanded Non-Plankton

47

Perpendicular Non-Map Fragment

2016 ink on paper and museum board 14 1⁄2 x 11 5⁄8 x 1 1⁄8"

2016 ink on paper and museum board 17 1⁄4 x 14 3⁄4 x 1 1⁄8"

2016 ink on paper and museum board 28 1⁄4 x 33 1⁄2 x 1 1⁄2"

2016 ink on paper and museum board 14 1⁄4 x 11 1⁄4 x 1 1⁄8"

2016 ink on paper and museum board 14 1⁄4 x 11 1⁄4 x 1 1⁄8"

2016 ink on paper and museum board 11 5⁄8 x 9 1⁄4 x 1 1⁄8"

2016 ink on paper and museum board 11 5⁄8 x 8 1⁄4 x 1 1⁄8"

48 Peripherique

2016 ink on paper and musuem board 26 1⁄2 x 32 x 1 1⁄2" 50

Displaced Split Valve

2016 ink on paper and museum board 9 3⁄4 x 7 5⁄8 x 1 1⁄8" 51 Shifted Merged Manifold (Yellow/Blue)

2016 ink on paper and museum board 14 7⁄8 x 13 x 1 1⁄8"

52

Two Perforated Non-Organisms

2016 ink on paper and museum board 28 1⁄4 x 33 1⁄2 x 1 1⁄2" 56

Large Manifold, First Version

2016 graphite on paper 20 x 24 3⁄4"

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Large Manifold, Second Version

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2016 graphite on paper 20 x 25"

Large Manifold, Third Version


Catalogue © 2017 Pace Gallery Works of art by James Siena © 2017 James Siena Text by Joe Fyfe © 2017 Joe Fyfe All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reprinted, reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, now known or hereafter invented, without written permission of the publisher. Every reasonable effort has been made to identify owners of copyright. Errors or omissions will be corrected in subsequent editions. Photography: Tom Barratt; pp. 13–20, 24, 30–33, 38–40, 44–53 Kerry Ryan McFate; pp. 21–23, 25–29, 34–37, 41–43, 54–63 Design: Tomo Makiura and Mine Suda Color correction: Motohiko Tokuta Production: Pace Gallery


James Siena - Drawing