Los Angeles

Manuel Neri and Joan Brown

David Stuart Galleries

Neri’s powerful, life­size plaster of Paris desdichados seem to grow (or decay) out of the post-­atomic phase of the iconography of despair. This is their content and context, but their virtue is not in what they say about the condition of hu­manity, for this view gets frequent ex­posure at all levels from kitsch to kul­tur, but in spite of it. One therefore grudgingly admits that these are form­ally impressive works with a fine sculp­tural and dramatic presence. The use of plaster is a frighteningly effective medium for this morbid vision and strikes the proper chill note, but it is also a satisfying material for the plan­al angularity and sculptural solidity of Neri’s approach to the figures. The dis­tortions do work in a fairly interesting sculptural manner, even if they bore in their literal message of hump-backed, swell-jointed, limbless deformity. Neri has a fine sense of the way the angle of head to body and the shifting of weight can create visual three-dimen­sional excitement. His use of surface pattern seems better than arbitrary and he has a way with jutting hips and bulging breasts. The impression he makes, therefore, is of a much more than competent figure sculptor who has been cuckolded by the shameless mod­ern muse. And this is where his painted surfaces come in too. The handling of paint is sophisticated, spontaneous looking, and attractive; the colors are eye-catching and may even enhance the drama of a plane or, in the bold figure of the staring woman, for example, be making a moral point via paint on a theme of Isaiah I (“the daughters of Zion are haughty, /and walk with stretched forth necks and wanton eyes”). The paint remains, however, superficial to form, a decorative poly­chrome nod to The New. It is exciting to imagine the work Neri could do if he would drop that scarlet harlot.

The show includes six outsize, impres­sively distraught and brazen collages by Joan Brown, whose work in the recent past could have been attacked on the moral subject of “the empty bravura of the brush.” Here she works with severely limited means: white and tan papiers colles, black and grey paint, drawing pencil, and what might be called the media of attachment. The pasted papers—really oak tag or heavy card—are combined with a careless vengeance to build a rough painterly­-like surface, the type of surface which is still our most familiar, if slightly worn, shorthand for the serious and the engaged. The glue does a Tenth Street drip, staples casually connect pieces, scotch tape glistens here and there, and rough torn edges comment irritably on collage as a possible vehicle for Cubistic neatness. Collage, in other words, on the dirty subway to its in­law, assemblage. This mood is carried over to the brash figures which are drawn or drippily painted on the pasted together surface in bold blacks, free washes, and pencil line. The subjects are essentially comic, a comedy which emerges via the expression on a face, the tilt of a shoulder, the material of a jacket, the size of a nose, the shape of a dog, or the Brando cut of a shirt. There is no irony of manner, for style speaks in committed terms of serious affairs; thus subject finally mocks style in a completely non-Pop, inventive, though just possibly unintentional, way. The figures are boldly conceived, inter­estingly placed, and incisively drawn, whether in paint or pencil, and Miss Brown’s feeling for non-decorative pat­terning (as in Ringo and Dog) can be exciting; she also exploits anecdotal detail very well. There are occasional stunning uses of the collage technique, when, for example, in Charlie Watts’ face, a cut paper of another color (white, simply, on light tan) operates non-planally with a near Fauve bril­liance.

But there are instances in which col­lage as a technique serves a question­able function. Since the papiers colles are not always employed composition­ally, their spatial operation is often in­dependent of and in conflict with the lines of the superimposed drawing. The innate tendency of collage to operate as abstract form, a form which can pro­vide tight pictorial structure, is here either overlooked, consciously denied, or insufficiently controlled. What Joan Brown does instead, and this she does remarkably well, is to explore the pos­sibility the technique offers for a bold and doctrinaire Expressionist state­ment. Though these collages lack the advantage of total coherence, they have an undeniable exuberant immediacy.

––Nancy Marmer