The Constraints of an Artist: James Siena

Visiting artist James Siena challenges the concept of freedom when creating artwork, asking his audience where freedom begins and ends. During his lecture at the 808 Gallery on Tuesday, Oct. 3, Siena described his work as being known for following self-imposed rules.  Siena says that “there are constraints that we put on ourselves.”

Siena is an American contemporary artist whose paintings focus on simple shapes and geometric figures. He distorts and repeats these shapes, turning something simple into something complex. His style is considered abstract expressionism. Though he mainly focuses on paintings, Siena has created a number of sculptures and prints as well.

Siena explained that the beginning of his career was difficult as he tried to find his place in the art world. He looked to artists like Richard Toye and Joel Shapiro for inspiration.

At the start, Siena began making his own paint for his work, a practice that he continues today. He mixes powder pigments and archival glue into a paint known as distemper. The majority of his work is colored with this.

Despite his love for constraint in his work, Siena notes that it is important to stray from the path sometimes. “…You start making one thing, through just the slightest constraint, through repetition, the result is quite unpredictable,” says Siena. Some of his favorite pieces began as something different, but became a refreshed project through small changes.

Much of Siena’s art could easily be made digitally with today’s technology. While it would be easier and less time-consuming, Siena says, “The humanity of the hand can’t be reproduced.”

Along with his rule of working by hand, Siena had rules about naming his paintings. He believed that the piece did not need a name because the piece is the art itself. Prior to his son Joe’s advice, Siena neglected to name any of his paintings.

Joe persuaded Siena and began naming the paintings for his father based on what they reminded him of. Siena confessed that naming art ended up being helpful for two reasons: It makes him think of his art in a new way, and it allows him to keep track of his work.

As Siena drew on the board, the room full of art students furiously copied his designs. Siena recommended they take inspiration from their doodles, as he spoke of the places he looked to for inspiration. He has made paintings based on poetry, maps, human anatomy and typewriter keys. He also finds new ideas from his own work, by “taking one idea and changing it in many ways.” His form has changed a lot over the years, but occasionally he will return to an old idea and rework it.

Throughout his lecture, Siena alluded to the many struggles that artists face. He claimed that he considers a lot of his work to be  “unsuccessful,” and calls some pieces, “total failures.”

Despite the fact that his work is shown in several renowned art museums around country, including Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, Siena still considers himself a work in progress. He explains that he continues to learn new things about his technique and style with every piece.

Siena urges artists to make mistakes because a “mistake makes it more of a painting.” He continues to reevaluate what drives him to create, and he admitted that though his work is incredibly difficult, it is often rewarding and, “Isn’t that why we make art in the first place?”

Siena’s works can be seen here.

Image of James Siena’s work featured on the Boston University College of Fine Arts page. 

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