Manuel Neri at San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art
By Erin Goodwin-Guerrero

If you have not yet seen the The Figure in Relief, Manuel Neri’s major exhibition at the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art, the show ends on Saturday, January 17th. Covered, are 25 years of Neri’s work with the figure. It is not to be missed. In any case, buy the catalogue.

Manuel Neri’s Mujer Pegada Series No. 3, Cast 2/4, 2006

When I was an artist in graduate school at San Jose State and later taught at the San Francisco Art Institute, the influence of Bay Area abstraction, funk and figurative abstraction was everything. It was an epoch of great distinction in Northern California Art that has yet to be equaled in contemporary trends and talents. A number or original and forcefully driven artists, among them Manuel Neri, were at the core of this era of artistic energy.

Gustavo Series No. 30, 1985, Oil paint stick, graphite, charcoal on paper

Courtesy of artist, and Hackett-Freedman Gallery

Neri’s drawings, prints and sculpture have had an enduring character and consistency that prove the merit of attention he received at the beginnings of his career. I can still remember how long I stared at a near life-sized, frontal Neri figure drawing in the Hansen Fuller Gallery, and how it has returned to me many times over the years.

Neri’s Alicia 18, 1994, Water based pigments and charcoal on paper

Neri’s Arcos de Geso Study No. 23, 1984, charcoal, oil pastel, graphite on paper

Courtesy of artist, and Hackett-Freedman Gallery

The energy and freshness of marks and the sensual quality of the materials is a major part of Neri’s drawings. Many of the drawings in the SJICA exhibition are done with the juicy, greasy marks of an oil stick, complemented by graphite lines and possibly an occasional line from oil crayons, charcoal, brushwork and the effects of solvent. They have all the virtues of abstract expressionism and confident loose drawing by a true master. There is nothing uptight or old hat about them, rather they remain as alive and inspired as ever. Every student of drawing should look at these examples of what it means to internalize your subject matter and process to the point that each work becomes one with the media and concept.

The subject — the mystique of the female form — is still one that draws the suspicion if not the ire of feminists. While the female nude, posed for the pleasure of the male gaze, is indeed at the center of Neri’s work, there is none of the crass representation of the female form that renders it a mindless being or simply the sum of its sexual parts that most of this genre employs.

Manuel Neri’s Arcos de Geso series, dyptich, cast, 2006, Bronze and oil based pigments

Does it help that Neri focuses on one distinct figure? Neri has worked with Mary Julia Klimenko for years. Bruce Nixon tells us in the catalogue that their work is the product of a true collaboration. Klimenko was not a professional model when they began, yet Neri found a spark of truth in the form she presented. Something about her familiar contours, for Neri viewers, speaks to an essence of the feminine, and remains individual nevertheless. We never see many details of her face but her posture and silhouettes are unmistakable.

Arcos de Geso X, 1985, Plaster with dry pigment, wire armature, styrofoam, burlap and wood

The ostensible focus of The Figure in Relief, is not on the drawings, but rather on the impressive and massive sculptural works wherein the female form is emerging from or trapped by a massive field of primordial material. The three major series in the exhibition are Arcos de Geso — plaster reliefs, the Mujer Pegada carved from marble, and the Maha figures in cast bronze. All depend on an interplay between solids and paint, flatness and texture, and rough hints of the emerging female form merging into polished and fully developed intervals: the contours of the knee or a shoulder, the buttocks. The bronze casts have been done in series, with each casting developed individually with different yet similar development of the painted surface. Almost all are pale earthy colors that allow for a few vibrant strokes, bold under-painting or a contrasting bold and arbitrary shape to enter the dialogue. The wonderfully rich textures speak to the classical story of a female figure in the process of creation by an artist’s hand. The most magical quality of these sculptures, in contrast to the drawings, is that they are so alive, so much in-progress, indeed! There is a tragic quality in some of the figures and an heroic quality in others. In all, the female form is seductive and beautiful, handled with respect at the very least, and perhaps even with a passionate devotion.

Comments are closed.