The genesis of James Siena’s current show at Pace dates all the way back to the 1980’s, when the artist first made small scale geometric sculptures out of toothpicks and grape stems, often to give away.
“I don’t want to say it was a lark,” Siena said of the early sculptures as we walked through his show on Monday afternoon, “it was a thing that I was doing that I really didn’t consider essential to my identity as an artist.”
The Pace exhibition marks the first time that the artist, who is best known for his rule-based 2-D abstractions, has shown anything three dimensional. On display is work of two general varieties: small sculptures made with ornate materials like grape stems, toothpicks, bamboo and string, and then large scale recreations of those works using bronze and wood.
“I do remember saying that I would love to make [the sculptures] larger and make them in metal,” Siena said. “I think I was waiting for the technology to catch up to the idea.”
Siena used resources from the Walla Walla Foundry and Cornell to actualize this desire, through a combination of CNC (computer numeric controlled) printing and hand assembly to create bronze and wooden sculptures based around the smaller works.
(The artist returned to the sculptures after a long absence a few years ago, partially due to an injury hindering his ability to draw. “I had an accident with my right wrist in late 2012 and I really couldn’t use my right hand for about three weeks or a month,” Siena said. “I couldn’t use it to draw but I could use it to hold things.”)
When installed in the gallery, the bigger pieces play off the small works—many of which are displayed next to each other on a bare bones wooden project table, some mounted to the wall—in an exciting way, almost as if a monster has spawned from these humble, craft-like geometric abstractions.
“When one looks at this”—Siena pointed to a table of the small sculptures before gesturing to one of the larger works—”then they look at that, the effect is incredibly different. The bronzes somehow feel almost menacing to me. Of course I didn’t intend it, I’m just kind of witnessing it.”
Siena is in his mid-fifties, bespectacled and buttoned up. He was affable and low-key in a way that brought to mind a pre-drug kingpin Walter White, as he explained what can sometimes be knotty process-based abstraction.
“What really took a lot of hours was the tying of the knots in order to really make a strong, long lasting wooden structure,” Siena said of the assemblage of the newer bamboo-based pieces in the show, created in Rome at the American Academy. “It’s very time consuming to tie those little intersections with thread.”
Siena’s friend David Humphrey used the term “Folk-Op” to refer to some of the work the artist has made in the past, and the phrase fits when describing the small sculptures on display at Pace. Siena’s work often exists at the intersection of handcraft and more methodical rule-based abstraction.
“Something I’ve tried to do in all my work is evoke a sense of consistency and completeness within whatever other thing that’s being done,” Siena said.