New York

Manuel Neri

Charles Cowles Gallery

Manuel Neri has been making painted sculptures of the standing female figure for some time, and in his recent show, these figures were more majestic and monumental than ever. Whether executed in bronze, marble, or plaster, they seem to exist in an abstract space of their own, an effect highlighted by the walls out of which several of them emerge. Sometimes Neri paints figures directly on the wall which, as either canvas or backdrop for his sculpted goddesses, becomes an attenuated version of the shell that protected Aphrodite after her birth from the sea. The watery realm itself is evoked in works such as Julia, 1998, in which the female subject has been painted turquoise blue, as if to confirm her Californian origins. The artist (who divides his time between Northern California and Carrara, Italy) might be said to subtly update Bay Area figurative painting by removing the figure from its environment. Neri’s statues might even be read as altarpieces to the goddess of beauty: Certainly his women—who are always young, fit, shapely, and poised—are ready to be worshiped.

If Neri’s subject matter is classical, his process seems timely. His painted sculptures seem to be modeled and carved all at once, and their parts sometimes look like prosthetic devices superior to the originals, as if to signal that beauty is a reconstruction in this age of disbelief. Certain figures look as if they’ve been fitted together from the remnants of others. One can’t help but think of Apelles, who, given the task of making a devotional image of Aphrodite, created an ideal woman out of a composite of different women’s body parts. Perhaps there is no single model for Neri’s female figure because each is not only the studio product of many observations, but the emotional yield of many experiences. For all their statuesque remoteness, his women have a simmering libidinous quality. Moreover, many are as battered as they are beautiful—their parts knocked about, crudely gesturalized, worked and reworked by the artist’s hand. The surface of Neri’s nudes has come a long way from the smooth pristine skin of Hiram Powers’s The Greek Slave, 1843.

Neri is caught on the horns of a dilemma: He wants to give us complete, beautiful female bodies but he has been conditioned to perform, yet again, what psychoanalyst Michael Balint calls the “dissolution of object representation” characteristic of modern art. Dissolution has become de rigueur, even academic, in modernism; wholeness is now revolutionary. Neri is trying to restore a sense of classical unity in a world that has nothing classical about it.

Donald Kuspit