James Siena has had what might be called a linear career. Whether painted, drawn or sculpted, his work is purely line-based. Yet his art always avoids the shortest distance between two points; i.e. the simple straight line. Instead he has continued to evolve work based on what he calls “a visual algorithm,” creating recursive labyrinthine canvases; intense but relatively small-scale repetitive patterns painted in enamel on aluminum.
For his latest show at Pace Gallery, the artist has diverged from his usual practice to produce a new body of work that significantly expands his singular vision. By switching from enamel on aluminum to acrylic on canvas, and enlarging the pieces’ scale, he has introduced a painterly level to his linear abstractions. The resulting pieces resemble topographical maps — or very complex iterations of an ultrasonic ripple effect. They visually reverberate.
At first glance, these ambitious elaborations on his trademark trope look like a cross between aboriginal art and the intricate circuitry of microchips; a seductive synthesis of atavistic and futuristic. But on closer examination, the viewer’s gaze becomes lost in the individual marks that make up each painting’s hypnotic visual mesh.
Whether monochromatic or in several complementary colors, whether thick or thin, the elastic, endlessly-repeated, carefully-executed ribbons of paint (first outlined in charcoal or graphite), produce varying optical affects. Some look like the whorls in a tree trunk’s cross-section, others like a circulatory system, still others like cobwebs, or a river’s tributaries.
In Hexscilloid (2018), the canvas seems to be divided into six sections, four of which have window-like rectilinear patterns within patterns. At a distance, the painting can look like a sophisticated textile design. But closer up, the obsessive attention to kaleidoscopic detail — within each window-shaped pattern, for instance, there are still other repeating patterns — is almost hallucinogenic.
Hexscilloid is one of four canvases with convoluted alternating color motifs that are nearly overwhelming, like a puzzle or maze that can’t be solved. The remaining seven of the eleven pieces in the show are monochromatic, and their relative simplicity imbues them with a comparatively soothing visual elegance.
Concordulation (2017), consisting of undulating lines in shades of red, has a biological aspect, like the enlarged image of a blood cell, or the circulatory system of an alien creature. Converbatron (2018), made up of dense but delicate lines in shades of periwinkle, divided by large ethereal X-marks, radiates a soft luminescence. Percussilative Echo, (2017-2018), looks like an azure map of oceanic currents, and Ssonsunurrhth (2018), is equally cobwebby and electronic. Because of their size — the largest, Tnonde, measures about 91 by 70 1/4 inches — these striking works have a strange heraldic quality—like space-age tapestries or intergalactic flags.
Siena continues to develop an aesthetic lexicon which revels in visual tongue-twisters, as if daring the viewer to find the beginning or end of each skein of paint the artist cleverly unravels — or ravels — on the canvas. It is as if he has twisted and morphed innumerable grids to create an impenetrable matrix system. There is no way to follow the artist’s thread; instead the challenge is to surrender to its complexity and enjoy the mind-bending view. As the artist himself has put it, “I am interested in the machinery of seeing.”
Phoebe Hoban has written about culture and the arts for a variety of publications, including The New York Times, New York Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, Vogue, Vanity Fair, GQ, Harper’s Bazaar, ARTnews, and The New York Observer, among others. She is the author of three artist biographies: Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art (1998), Alice Neel: The Art of Not Sitting Pretty (2010) and Lucian Freud: Eyes Wide Open (2014).