James Siena, “Trectiuff” (2020), acrylic and graphite on linen, 75 x 120 inches (all images courtesy Miles McEnergy Gallery)
Drawing a line is central to James Siena’s painting practice. The lines are repeated according to a pre-established set of rules, or what the artist calls a “visual algorithm.” This is how he described the impetus to work this way in a lecture he gave at Youngstown State University in 2018: “At a certain point I wanted to make drawings and works that act as machines. The way they act as machines is you have to find your way into them and find your way out of them. As you undo the making of them they come to life.” Siena’s description reminds me of Raymond Queneau, co-founder of Oulipo, a group dedicated to writing under structural constraints, who described fellow oulipians as “rats who build the labyrinth from which they will try to escape.”
Working this way Siena seems never to have stepped into the same machine twice. Between 2005, when I first wrote about his work, and the present, he has made optically vibrant geometric abstractions; evoked different human orifices; depicted angry old men made entirely of wrinkles (imagine conceptual mystic Sol LeWitt meets Mad magazine’s’ Basil Wolverton), some of whom were masturbating; suggested visual mazes and topographical maps; and seemingly become a painting machine run amok, both repeating and mis-recognizing a lost original.