James Siena is an artist whose work has gained extraordinary critical acceptance over the past two decades for its ingenuity and grace, yet I still wonder what exactly it is that compels such a consensual reception, given that its intellectual rigor and complexity might just as well achieve the opposite effect. Perhaps it is because the artist’s motivation is simpler than merely experimenting with aesthetic theory. In his drawings, paintings, and prints, Siena has mastered a vast array of subtle variations on the basic theme of how to orient oneself at one end of an actual/virtual space in order to get to the other: a knowable maze. His work has remained so graphically about its own next step, summoning a kind of pragmatic genius loci, that it is almost impossible to comb any contemporary “criticality” from it. There is a science-fictional connection between Siena’s work and the contemporary. The artist names sculptures for such practitioners as J.G. Ballard, Bruce Sterling, and Margaret Atwood. While this naming might be ancillary to the actual form of each sculpture, it does indicate a proclivity toward that genre of thinking. By deploying such humble materials as toothpicks, bamboo, and string to generate complex “models of thought,” or, more specifically, the bare syntax of a constructive, empirical reason itself, Siena in effect fictionalizes the role of the artist as primary author in order to examine the authority of form in a general, more universal sense. It is this general sense in his work (one made much more evident in the sculptures) that makes it difficult to place in a contemporary continuum.
Siena’s new sculptures range from diminutive to grand scale. At the small end there are table-top constructions developed from grape stems, toothpicks, and glue such as “Contents May Differ (first version)” (2011) with only a four-inch maximum dimension. The much larger scale, his cherry wood fabricated “Just Read The Instructions” (2013), is almost six feet in length. Scanning the gallery from tabletop to wall to floor one might form the superficial impression of a natural history museum display: a magnified array of the atomic skeletons of carbon life-forms. On closer inspection the construction of each work reveals minutely hand-knotted intersections of the aforementioned materials as well as a few iterations in bronze and bamboo. Some of the works like “Morthanveld: Inspiral, Coalescence, Ringdown” (2014 – 15) expand its bamboo units in a vertical thrust, like the open lattice-work towers of the Think Design team’s proposal for the World Trade Center rebuild. Others pieces, such as “X.Ray Burns” (2012) extend horizontally, overlapping like the twigs of a caddisfly larval tube.
There is a murmuring dialogue throughout the show between the anthropocentrically constructed and the organically “grown,” between the diamond cutter’s art and the atomic structure of a diamond. Both the larger and smaller works maintain a constant sense of scale in that their matrices of interconnecting lines imply an expandable or contractable space grid that connects the works to each other micro- and macro-cosmically. By distributing the stress points of his rigid webbing, the artist somewhat dilutes any dramatic tension in one area, thereby giving the collected works a sense of inherent, yet supra-natural morphology, like the perpetually generative spirit of a Platonic daemon. This energetic continuity and conservation of form and mass seems much more evident in Siena’s sculptures than it does in his two-dimensional work.
This may be the most radical aspect of his move into sculpture: the risk of losing the aesthetic uniqueness of each object for the reach of a universal phenomenology of form. These works share a kinship in that type of risk with the work of Tony Smith and Buckminster Fuller, as well as more recent exemplars such as Terry Winters and Brice Marden. Like these individuals, Siena seems to have gotten himself to a generative “point no point.” From here he can take on the mapping out of the terra subcognito of the space/time continuum that is nevertheless as everyday and casual as a primary school lesson in physics.
His sculptures are similar in their intention and manifestation to some of the experiments that Richard Feynman (for whom one of the works here is named) used to teach the lay public simple lessons in physics like dropping a facsimile of the Space Shuttle Challenger’s fuel cell O-ring into a glass of ice water to illustrate its dangerous instability at low temperatures. Like Feynman, Siena has a knack for understating the obvious in order to point to universal cause and effect. His sculptures here, despite their hobbyist’s dissembling, construct a very serious world, a world in which the asymmetric growth of form can be both beautifully expansive but also sometimes fatal.
Feynman’s namesake sculpture is made of bamboo, string, and glue and presents a series of nested three-dimensional grids in an overall cubic form. The classical geometry of such a piece is echoed in others such as “Freeman Dyson” (2014) and “Richard Rand” (2014). In paying nominal homage to such epoch-shaping physicists and mathematicians, Siena implicitly aligns his systematic methodology with an empiricism that is both pragmatic and visionary.
Two of the most curious works in this show are “Villa Aurelia (one)” and “Villa Aurelia (two),” (both 2013) each of which is encased in a small section of what appears to be a tree branch in a network of glued-together toothpicks. These pieces suggest a moth or butterfly making a cocoon or chrysalis, or perhaps the body’s immune system coping with a foreign object. The introduction of this organic element as a central form from which the framework/network arises brings to mind an alien, yet not exactly alienated, consciousness at work, attempting to understand and ultimately enclose raw nature in its “abstract” reason. There is a science-fictional grasping for a form that maybe pre-figures humanized nature, or what the philosopher Quentin Meillassoux terms an “arche-fossil.” This projection of such speculative intent through an empirical practice is rare in these days-of-future vision passed, most recently dubbed the Anthropocene. Siena might be plotting his aesthetic course and connecting the dots just under or above contemporary radar in order to evade such a simple limit and label.