PRINT January 2002

Katy Siegel on James Sheehan

JAMES SHEEHAN MAKES TEENY TINY PAINTINGS, some less than one inch square. While his novel skill wows, the artist, of course, would prefer not to be associated with the distinguished grain-of-rice school of imagemaking. Sheehan paints small for some of the same reasons others paint big—to put the viewer into another space. If, say, Barnett Newman wants to surround you physically, Sheehan wants to pull you close, drawing you visually and imaginatively into a universe both bounded and replete. Two paintings from 1999, [sic] and STET, take us into such a closed world: They show the artist and his computer-programmer buddy smoking pot in the friend's Silicon Valley garage workshop—for Sheehan, the creative soul of the now soulless computer boom.

Other paintings explore how distance relates to scale. Manifest Disappointment, 2000, the size of a postage stamp, zooms in on the artist's face, foregrounded against a remote landscape. Jim, 2000, about six by seven inches, depicts the same scene, but the image blurs, as if Sheehan had blown up the earlier painting. Brushstrokes clump and swirl, the paint rising off the surface as if the image were losing resolution and revealing its materiality. The abstract Prongs Outside Prongs, 2000, furthers the idea that, like digital imagery or halftone prints, painting has an atomic structure: Its craggy peaks of multicolored paint resemble a fantastic magnified detail of a monochrome painting.

Considerations of resolution and scale, near and far figured in the work Sheehan did during a 2000–2001 residency at the World Trade Center; in his ninety-first-floor work space, he painted three views of his studio desk-his inside world—as well as two northward views of Manhattan, the vista from his studio window. For Halcyon Days, 2000, featuring the Empire State Building at the center of a cityscape, he constructed a silicone surface over which he layered the image; the technique both coordinates and separates support, image, and surface. The bumpy, packed work reiterates the compressed feel of urban space; like Sheehan's paintings of crowds, Halcyon Days matches representational density with literal, material density.

Sheehan's only other subject during his WTC residency was, strangely, the Pentagon. In Pentagon, 2000, he painted the building on a one-inch circle with a voided center (not unlike a button). The aerial view of the five-sided building flattens out the image, an investigation of the picture plane as well as a funny take on the shaped canvas: Pinprick-size trucks and trees swirl out from the geometric figure marked by a central hole. The Pentagon itself represents a single structure whose concentrated social power stretches vastly, for better or worse. Similarly, Sheehan's spaces—the Pentagon, the studio, the garage, abstract painting itself—radically contract and expand as we move in and out of them, looking big and small, sharp and blurry, like everything and nothing much.

A frequent contributor to Artforum, KATY SIEGEL is assistant professor of contemporary art history and criticism at Hunter College, City University of New York. she has recently published essays on Rineke Dijkstra and David Reed and has written about New York art in the '90s for the catalogues accompanying the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art exhibition “Public Offerings” and the Barbican's 'The Americans: New Art.“ Her recent curatorial effort, ”Everybody Now," at the Hunter College/Bertha and Karl Leubsdorf Art Gallery, looked at all manner of human groupings the crowd, the collective, the masses—in contemporary art.