James Siena: “Drawing” at Pace Gallery


“Manifold X,” 2015, James Siena. Photo: courtesy Pace Gallery
“Manifold X,” 2015, James Siena, ink and watercolor on paper,
11 5⁄8″ x 9 1⁄4″  Photo: courtesy Pace Gallery

James Siena’s drawing show at Pace begins with a suite of sampler-like text works collectively titled Nihilisms. Neither the cosmic circularities about nothingness nor the mild inventiveness of the lettering make anything like the statement one has become accustomed to in all that Siena touches—from his gorgeous body of enamel paintings, whose algorithmic schemes resolve at the edges as perfectly as Renaissance nativities; to tiny notebook sketches and palindromic typewritings; to digitally fabricated sculpture and progressively layered prints. But not to worry —the rest of the new drawings are resolutely graphic, and they add wrinkles to Siena’s rich practice.

As for wrinkles, in 2006 Siena took a small step that was a giant departure: into weirdo cartoons of intricately furrowed faces, scrota, and vaginas. The imagery arose naturally from compressed motifs in his “pure” abstractions, but suddenly, here was narrative, even commentary—not to mention light and space, figure and ground. The group of Manifold drawings in the current show are permutations on a weaving motif, which, with their hatched surfaces, spatial overlapping, and stagey positions on the page, might well be taken for topological “figures” playing out orgies of entanglement. Using black and transparent inks in most cases, the drawings consist of four, three, two, or a single onanistic surface knotted up pleasurably with itself. If the figures and their relationships are heraldically apparent in Manifold X, with its concentric, recursive, color-coded layers, they are tricky in Manifold IX (both 2015), in which a bendy yellow ten-torus (toplogical lingo for a manifold with ten holes) is woven through multiple strands of blue that might be two figures or a single, continuous one; and if the artist himself knows, it’s only from the drawing of it. For a catalogue in 2001 Siena was asked to write down the rules for each work in hindsight, which made, misleadingly, for LeWitt-like reading. Siena’s self-instructions are in fact bristling with decisions, roads taken or not taken—and thus are fundamentally hands-on. Linework in itself is the issue in Large Manifold, Second Version (2016), a tour de force of bold graphite that tests the limits of the artist’s steady engraver’s hand.

A second room contains a collection of feathery, delicate drawings, called Wanderers, whose motifs escape from the page, overrunning their chamfered window mattes. Untitled (First Hybrid) (2016) is even colonized by one of Siena’s toothpick truss sculptures. So much for containment at the edge, flatness, anti-illusionism and several other hobgoblins. Siena’s only sacred principle is growth.