Maddening Consistency Hampers Siena’s Intricately Pretty Pictures

120505 article naves Maddening Consistency Hampers  Siena’s Intricately Pretty PicturesAnyone 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.

James Siena: New Paintings and Gouaches is at PaceWildenstein, 534 West 25th Street, until Jan. 28, 2006.

Flower Power

You don’t have to be an expert in botany to take pleasure in the paintings of Maryam Amiryani, on display at the George Billis Gallery. Though a checklist specifies the subject of each of the small canvases, accuracy isn’t the issue. Nature is an impetus, not an arbiter here. Sinuous, decorative form and strong, sparkling color drive the work. Surface, too: Ms. Amiryani abrades the pictures between successive layers of oil paint, creating textures that recall (for the artist) Iranian textiles and (for the critic) Roman wall paintings.

Would that the crisp interplay between positive and negative areas were less cut and dried. As it is, Ms. Amiryani settles for predictably effective compositions: Each image is whipped into shape by the surrounding blackish ground. That’s not to say she isn’t capable of complication—or magic. Hydrangeas (2005) is everything Ms. Amiryani wants it to be: Luminous and spooky, somewhat acidic, focused, sexy and lush. It’s a painting to fall in love with.

Maryam Amiryani is at the George Billis Gallery, 511 West 25th Street, until Dec. 3.

Those Brooklyn Roads

In Billis’ front gallery, Elizabeth O’Reilly proves herself the envy of anyone who’s ever been flummoxed by oil paint. In her small works on panel, the famously difficult medium is rendered curt and supple. Each picture, whether it be of a winter landscape or the Gowanus Expressway, is punctuated by a touch keenly attuned to the vital correspondence between brushstroke and depicted form.

Ms. O’Reilly’s ease and confidence are deceiving: She places considerable skill in the service of intuition and spontaneity. No one dabs, dots and slurs oil paint like this without ample experience handling the stuff. For my money, she’s more on the mark ensconced in the snow than marooned on the darkened streets of Brooklyn, a distinction that may have less to do with location than with the artist’s response to light. Either way, she responds to these panoramas with dexterity and aplomb.

Elizabeth O’Reilly: Black and White is at the George Billis Gallery, until Dec. 3.

Vanishing Act

The exhibition of drawings and sculpture by Christopher Wilmarth, on view at the Betty Cuningham Gallery, is highly disappointing, only because it begs the question: When will a major museum give us a proper survey of this significant American artist?

Wilmarth accomplished a lot in his cruelly brief life. (He committed suicide in 1987 at the age of 44.) Not least among his accomplishments is the unlikely coupling of Minimalism’s brutishness with a spiritual longing that is its antithesis. Wilmarth’s not-so-secret weapon in this enterprise was panes of glass etched with acid, the result being a fogging effect that seems to dissipate physical form upon contact with the eye. By juxtaposing the glass within rigorously shaped steel armatures, Wilmarth also offers a singularly grave gloss on the tradition of Constructivist sculpture.

Aiming for evanescence and inviting contemplation, the work asks a lot from the viewer. In doing so, it evinces a rare regard for the audience’s capacity to engage in aesthetic experience. Wilmarth’s reticent, self-effacing mien is, in this regard, altogether appropriate and a blessing. He makes the competition—Donald Judd, Richard Tuttle and Frank Stella—look like a decorator, a nuisance and an excrescence, respectively. Until a New York museum musters the gumption to honor Wilmarth’s tough and haunting achievement, the Cuningham show will have to do.

Christopher Wilmarth: Sculpture and Drawings is at the Betty Cuningham Gallery, 541 West 25th Street, until Dec. 3.