San Francisco

Manuel Neri

New Mission Gallery

A few of the painted plaster figures on which Manuel Neri has been working have appeared here and there during the past few months. The 82nd Annual of the San Francisco Art Institute fea­tured one, a group show at the Berkeley Gallery another, and two more were seen at the recent Oakland Museum sculp­ture exhibition. On the basis of them one might have expected a more finished quality, technically, and a more lyrical quality, emotionally, in this one­-man exhibition. But technical finish has never interested Neri and that inclina­tion toward the lyrical that one suspects to be native to his sensibility has been sharply curbed here to produce a series of sculptured images so penetrating, so disturbing that this becomes, easily, the finest and most absorbing one-man exhibition that San Francisco has seen since, perhaps, Bruce Conner’s opening exhibition at the Batman Gallery.

The corpse that has always been the “figure” part of “California figurative” painting is here given life. But what life! Featured—but without identity. Standing—but about to topple. Palpa­ble—but seconds away from annihila­tion. Naked—but sexless. Not stone turned to people, but people turned to stone. It is as if the artist were feverishly working in those few seconds between the first blinding flash and the final cataclysm. Yet they are there and they will endure. Neri’s exhibition sounds, simultaneously, the strings of total despair and insistent faith. The method, the artistry, the magic by which these paradoxical responses are evoked and maintained demarcates precisely the point at which an artist’s accom­plishment cannot be translated into words.

Here and there, the lyricism cannot be restrained, and one comes, almost with relief, upon sculptures in which Neri has given himself over completely to the rich modeling of a torso, the care­ful evocation of a thigh. “These frag­ments I have shorn against my ruins.”

The Neri exhibition establishes once again how very misleading is the cate­gorization of artists into “figurative” or “abstract,” how completely at home this work is with any conception of what is truly “contemporary.” For embodied in this exhibition is a feeling which only art can express, for the times in which we live.

Philip Leider