San Francisco

Manuel Neri

Paule Anglim Gallery

MANUEL NERI’s recent work continues to reflect ideas which the artist has pursued for 20 years or so, ever since he gave up his connection with the Bay Area figurative painters and turned to constructing and extracting expressionist human forms from plaster. The connection has not been totally abandoned because Neri still applies paint to his figures in such a way that one would never think of them as painted figures, but rather as plaster figures to which different colors of paint have been desultorily applied.

Neri’s color is brushed on in fragments. Some of his figures are fragments, some of them are in the process of coming apart and seem composed of separating fragments, and all of them add up, not to a whole, as one might suspect, but to fragments of ideas which the viewer is left to complete, match up or speculate further upon. In Sancas Rojas, n.d., and La Nina de la Piedra, 1978, there is a sensation of brooding religiosity; solitary figures, penitent and demanding some kind of reverence, have an air of supplicating saints in the wilderness, or in a churchly niche. Although these sculptures were not exhibited in pairs, they fell neatly into groups of two, linked either by subject or similarities in pose. Two 1979 works, both legs-spread, seated figures, appear painfully vulnerable even before it becomes evident that at least one limb is tentatively held to the roughened plaster body by a supporting wire. Among the figures whose parts are fully represented, if not intact, are two who crouch in a sort of human tripod position, the ungrounded arm crossed to the opposite shoulder in a non-duplicatable pose. The pyramidal outline of these figures gives them a stability belied elsewhere by the scratched-on paint and raspy plaster applications, disintegrating feet, and half-severed appendages (including breasts, which had never, until this moment, seemed like appendages) which Neri typically seems to affix with partially exposed underlying pins and wires.

The effect of all of this is that of decomposing ancient Peruvian mummy bales via classical statuary and de Kooning’s “Women,” and the effect intensifies in front of the exhibition’s pièces de resistance, Fallen Woman, Series I, II, III, and IV, where Neri outdoes himself in fragmentation of forms and ideas. Truncated female torsos, hung in pairs, arch outward from the wall in bottoms-up poses, suggesting a variety of interpretations ranging from dancers (too tame) to a butcher’s rack or torture victims (not those with pure white bodies!).

Next to the anguish with which these figures achieve form from cast, flung, dripped and raked plaster, Neri’s small bronzes, also in the exhibition, surpass the traditional on their way to the wishy-washy. Much more intriguing are the broadly brushed drawings of arms-raised female figures in which the forms and background overtake one another with equal strength.

The true paradox of Neri’s work is perhaps not his reluctance to let go of painterly concerns while creating sculpture but rather that he uses contemporary and/or untried methods and materials to create something that seems to be irreparably affected by death, the elements, time and change.

Mary Stofflet