Siena recalls Cornell days in artist talk at Johnson

April 21, 2010

Reflecting on the 1970s as a time before technology ruled everyone's lives, James Siena '79 recalled his Cornell years and his development as an artist at an April 16 talk at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art.

"I realized on my way up here that I was a freshman 35 years ago — I thought I was a grownup," said Siena, who is on the faculty of the School of Visual Arts in New York City. Noting that it was the era before the Internet, he remembered playing the computer game "Paranoia" on ARPANET back then.

"What does this have to do with me becoming a visual artist?" he said. "I think that what I do is trying to make thought visible — trying to take apart the visual process in order to make us think about how we think."

Siena was also on campus to receive the 2009-10 Eissner Artist of the Year Award, given to alumni artists of distinction by the Cornell Council for the Arts. The crystal award statuette was presented to Siena after the lecture by Judith Kellock, CCA interim director.

Much of Siena's work involves patterns and structures he terms algorithms. He explained some of those patterns in various slides of his work, including a design that has now been reproduced on a rug made in Kathmandu, Nepal. He said he became interested in visualizing fractals, the Golden Mean and other mathematical concepts when he realized "the edge of anything is infinite."

Siena also said that all the serious disciplines and fields of study he encountered at Cornell intrigued him.

"There was a professor named Asher here," he said. "He believed that the only unit of culture was the individual. That there was no culture. I wanted to one-up him; I was a bit of a smart guy in class. A friend of mine, a poet named Josh Davis, had invented an alter ego named Harold Flood and had written about a hundred poems as this person. So I did a portrait of an imaginary individual."

Siena's talk accompanied the exhibition "James Siena: From the Studio," a personal retrospective of his career which closed April 18 at the Johnson. The show featured 19 pieces from the past 30 years, along with several artworks by his contemporaries (including Joyce Robins, Mark Lombardi and Alfred Jensen) he has traded for, bought or received as gifts; and examples from his collection of antique typewriters and adding machines.

His first-ever exhibition in the 1970s featured two pieces displayed at Moosewood Restaurant in Ithaca, Siena said. There was none of his Cornell work in the recent retrospective; the two earliest pieces on display were from 1977 — mixed-media works featuring flattened rodents (mole, glue and bronze powder; and mouse and gold leaf).

Siena serves on the Johnson Museum and College of Architecture, Art, and Planning advisory councils. His lecture was introduced by Andrea Inselmann, curator of modern and contemporary art at the Johnson.

By Daniel Aloi

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