Manuel Neri’s sculpture reveals a genuine grappling with form and process. His life-sized female figures have the kinetic presence of living beings. We encounter these sculptures the way we encounter other people, at least the way we do when we’re most attuned: observing their immediate attributes, but also sensing the entire dimension of personal history and emotion they trail behind them.
This dual feeling derives from Neri’s unique methods. Since the ’50s, he’s been painting the surfaces of his sculptures. He learned early on from Bay Area painters like David Park and Richard Diebenkorn, as well as from his contemporary, Nathan Oliveira. Neri’s work contains the contrast between expressive brightness and meditative depth that we associate with these artists. While his gestural slashes of color offer great pleasure on their own, his figures maintain an almost archaic feeling of poise.
Neri is neither a formalist nor an improviser so much as a fuser of those approaches. He works with intense deliberation; his casts often date from many years before the sculpture’s completion. Yet his works don’t feel “completed” so much as ripped from the act of creation itself.
Among the superb selection in this show, La Palestra No. 5 (1988) stood out with particular force. A bronze female nude balancing on her hands and feet with her torso facing upward, the figure contains all the grace and strength of a body caught in the most intense instant of motion. Neri’s painting on the bronze, especially the white and red along the roughened surface of the legs, shows the gestural effort that makes his brushwork feel like sculpture. And despite this aggressive texture, the gorgeously curved belly has a rich and sinuous volume, possibly the influence of the work that Neri has done with marble over the last 25 years.
Perhaps the most powerful piece was a bronze frieze called Mujer Pegada Series No. 2 (1985–86). In this sculpture, a blue and aquamarine figure stands against the metal wall, surrounded by creamy whites and yellows, while a parallel figure recedes back into the wall on the right. This frieze presents the viewer with a true moment of emergence, a moment in which process gives birth to form even as form slides back into the river of process. Working with friezes has offered Neri a way to engage his fascination with that borderline, that in-between space that exists in his work as the divider, and joiner not only of form and process, but also of sculpture and painting, tradition and individuality, permanence and improvisation. Despite the obvious weight of his accomplishment, Neri still seems to dwell in this state of perpetual becoming. We should be grateful.
Sculpture Magazine, January/February 2006, Vol. 25 No. 1, Reviews, p.70