James Siena at PaceWildenstein

James Siena one, one... 2005 enamel on aluminum, 22-3/4 x 29 inches Courtesy PaceWildenstein

James Siena, one, one . . . (2005), enamel on aluminum, 22-3/4″ x 29″; courtesy Pace Wildenstein

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Anyone who wouldn’t want a painting by James Siena hanging over the sofa must be nuts. Then again, anyone who’d want more than one Siena over the sofa should have his head examined. Mr. Siena’s pictures—with their jewel-like colors, clean surfaces and zooming, meticulous patterning—are undoubtedly beautiful. But their beauty is qualified by the narrow scope of his vision. An exhibition of the paintings, as well as a sampling of gouache works on paper, is on display at PaceWildenstein’s Chelsea branch.

To get a handle on the limitations of the work, first do some window-shopping. Pick a single Siena picture that will suit your apartment’s décor. Shouldn’t be too hard. Scale isn’t an issue: The wobbly, maze-like abstractions are modest in size and would fit snugly into almost any New York City home. Color, likewise, poses no problem: The palette is various, yet even in character. Mr. Siena tempers strong, sharp or sour tones with intricate compositions and careful attention to the medium itself: hard and glossy enamel paint. The paintings are forthright and intense, but they feel cozy within the bounds of their crafting. They don’t aggressively solicit our engagement.

Now try to ascertain if one of Mr. Siena’s paintings is better than another. This won’t be as easy—largely because it’s beside the point. A staggering range of pictorial influence doesn’t translate into a staggering range of effect. (The arts of Africa, Islam, Native American cultures, Paul Klee and the folk painter holed up in a warren down South are all seamlessly accounted for in Mr. Siena’s style.) The work is maddeningly consistent, with no breadth or sense of possibility. Each time Mr. Siena sits down to make a picture, he paints himself into a corner. It’s an attractive corner, but it’s the same corner as last time, and the time before that.

But this is the first time I’ve felt compelled to wonder about Mr. Siena’s motives. His signature amalgam of Outsider Art and Minimalism—in other words, obsession and inertia—is beginning to feel less like an artistic imperative than a savvy career move. There are worse ways to get your foot in the art world’s door than mixing and matching genres all but guaranteed to make a return on one’s investment. The marketplace moves in mysterious ways; artists move in ways that are often less than divine. We should be grateful that Mr. Siena’s commodities are as fetching as they are.

© 2005 Mario Naves

Originally published in the December 5, 2005 edition of The New York Observer.

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