Can an artwork, and by extension the artist, be considered obsessive? James Siena: Selected Paintings and Drawings, 1990 – 2004, the artist’s 2004 mini-retrospective at Daniel Weinberg’s L.A. gallery would certainly seem to beg the question. Fastidiously installed in the gallery’s two exhibition spaces, the nineteen modestly scaled works – none larger than 29 x 23 inches – contain thousands upon thousands of concentrated brushstrokes.
Admittedly, brushstrokes are not what one first notices about the Siena’s work, but its shimmering vibrancy. Even across a room, Siena’s geometric abstractions seem to emit a sub-audible hum. Their energy is so high that their physical boundaries appear permeable; they easily charge a space substantially larger than the small sheets of aluminum that they are painted on. Any installation that does not afford them at least three times their size in empty space around them risks appearing overly crowded – and nineteen small paintings and works on paper completely filled the two large rooms of Weinberg’s gallery.
As with most abstract painting, it may be fairly easy to describe what the paintings look like – repetitive geometric patterns rendered in an essentially earth-toned palette – yet nearly impossible to describe the aesthetic of their visceral impact. What, exactly, does a radiating star-burst or proto hounds-tooth pattern meananyway? No matter the intricacy, how does one discuss a painting of a shape?
In looking for a conceptual foothold where no overt narrative presents itself, how natural, how tempting to contemplate the physical origin of the artworks. Indeed, close inspection of Siena’s paintings makes for an intriguing exploration. Using exceedingly small sign painting brushes (designed to hold extra paint and pull a straight line with the least difficulty) which he modifies further by removing a significant number of hairs to make them thinner still, Siena covers the surface of each work with thousands of densely packed strokes. Just a few inches long at most, they are applied evenly throughout each painting regardless of the color or shape being rendered. Certainly it is reasonable to assume that the artist’s intent might be revealed in such a distinct modus operandi.
Not that such a technique is unknown in contemporary art. Myron Stout, for instance, made paintings where the strokes are applied so uniformly that the figure ground relationship of his two-color compositions is completely destroyed: are we looking at white figures on a black ground or a black painting with a white negative space? But Stout painted with a much wider brush and allowed the strokes to flow into each other, the final effect being to all but negate the viewer’s awareness of the brushwork. More like Siena, perhaps, is an artist like Jim Nutt who also assembles his tight compositions by applying thousands of hair thin brush strokes evenly across the paintings surface. Yet because Nutt is rendering a portrait, albeit a highly abstracted one, the process retains the appearance of being in service of a necessary depictive result.
Siena’s abstractions have neither Stout’s intentionally obfuscated manner nor Nutt’s apparent descriptive imperative. Absent more overt rational as these, there might be a reasonable and strong inclination on the viewer’s part to assume that Siena’s painting exits solely as an outlet for the his need to apply paint in the most painstaking way possible. It is at this point one might begin to wonder if the artist is engaged in obsessive compulsive behavior that, only incidentally, results in an artwork.
No doubt that for the layman, Siena’s process must seem physically redundant and numbingly time consuming; for most people it is close to impossible to imagine sitting down and laying down the hundreds of brushstrokes, one after the other, that add up to make a single small painting. But let’s back up for a minute and consider the artist’s process in more overall terms. Painting tends to be hard work. It can be absorbing, encompassing, stimulating, at times exceedingly difficult and rewarding but, as most artists would probably tell you, not particularly fun. Still, unless one is willing to commit to the necessary labor, the final result will be unsatisfactory. Think for a moment of the Northern Renaissance painters – Albrect Durer, Jan Van Eyck, or Roger Van der Weyden – whose works are compilations of literally thousands of nearly invisible brush strokes. The processes of these artists, tedious to the point of absurd to modern minds accustomed to the ease of photographic representation and so technically beyond the understanding of average viewers as to be rendered all but invisible, was simply a utilitarian necessity to the artists and viewers of their time.
Process underlies effect. This is so for all art, and perhaps truer of painting than any other medium. Sometimes, as with Abstract Expressionism, this is obvious (at least after thirty years or so). Other times, as is the case with Northern Renaissance or Minimalist art, the role of process is difficult to fathom. Yet all successful paintings have this in common: the aesthetic presented is total, and the impact of that aesthetic is the result of how it was made.
So although it might be tempting to deconstruct Siena’s process and even, on a certain level, gain insights into the work by doing so, it is imperative not to lose sight of the seductiveness of the object itself. If we become obsessed with the process over the impact, then it is easy to be overwhelmed by the marks without keeping a fix as Siena does on their functionality.
Obsessive behavior, versus merely tedious activity, can only be defined by its pointlessness – it is activity for the solely for the sake of activity. We intuitively measure this if, when, we perceive the mark making, rather than the finished object, as the goal. There may always be, as a friend once said, the exception that proves the rule – Jay DeFeo’s “White Rose” immediately comes to mind here. But we must acknowledge that if something functions as art, then by definition it can not be obsessive, and this is clearly the case with Siena’s art. The energy that Siena invests into each artwork is the necessary amount; therefore neither the artworks nor the artist can be considered obsessive.