New York

James Siena

Gorney Bravin + Lee

James Siena’s small enamel paintings on aluminum are always absorbing, his drawings on paper no less so. Like Op art, they tend to confuse the eye as it tries to untangle their intricate webs of line and color. Some are quite regular and geometric: In Three Combs (boustrophedonic), 2001, black, blue, and ocher lines work their way in straight interlocking lengths over a white field, forming a meshlike maze whose logic is nevertheless fully decipherable. Red Corner Painting, 2000, is a little kinkier—groups of rectangles within rectangles in red on cream, here closing in on an uneven crosslike form, there leaving an unexplained gap. And so the works climb the scale of complication and controlled extravagance until you get one like Drawing after Untitled Yellow Black (second version), 2001, which recalls Robert Smithson’s drawings of lightning bolts: A field of thick jagged lines, it is all angles and energies. Read the lines carefully and you will grasp that there is only one of them, or perhaps I should say two, since positive and negative are coidentical here: Although the whiteness of the paper support pushes a reading of a black figure against a white ground, you could in fact be seeing a black and a white line perfectly dovetailing.

The paintings, all from the last two or three years, have an interesting palette, often of in-between places on the spectrum—mustards, deep pinks, “off” tones. Their smooth, glossy surfaces and the object quality of the aluminum plates recall cloisonné jewelry. The paintings come in two standard sizes. about nineteen by fifteen inches and about twenty-nine by twenty-three, while the drawings are smaller and a little less finished. The modest scale and the signs of Siena’s hand in his fluctuating patterns—he apparently uses no ruler, even when dealing in regular geometric shapes—have a humanizing charm, reinforcing the visual pleasure of the work’s careful puzzlelike play.

At the same time, part of the pleasure of the puzzles lies in the traces of system that give them spine. For a while I thought Siena was an artist like Sol LeWitt: Each composition rigorously works out a written formula, as if it were an experiment to see what the result of a particular plan would be. Of Noiseless, 1998, for example, Siena writes, “Curved, tapered line segments interlock slightly in succession as they circumambulate the picture (and must not touch) in an extended spiral ending at the center.” (This is one of his simpler instructions; they can run on for a paragraph.) The practice might seem to make Siena a descendant of the ’80s artists who tried to reconcile ideas indebted to Conceptual art with the formal rewards of painting. And this indeed he is, in some ways, but he is also of a younger generation, and according to a judicious essay by Robert Hobbs in this show’s catalogue, he is powerfully interested in computer software and artificial intelligence. He calls the written proposals for his paintings algorithms, for example, seeing them as generating the image in the same way that a computer program determines a series of steps in the microworld of the chip. These concerns are not visually self-evident, at least not to me; Siena may be thinking about the computer, but he still connects clearly to formalist painters like the young Frank Stella, to intellectual imagemakers like LeWitt and before him Jasper Johns, and to the traditions of pattern and decoration, both inside and outside art history. The logics of painting and pattern are strong enough here to overpower more recent arguments. Perhaps in time the intelligence of Siena’s work will sensitize us to the processes he wants to picture, however, and meanwhile his art is wonderfully effective on whatever terms one takes it.

David Frankel