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The Form in Time: Manuel Neri's Relief Sculptures

by Bruce Nixon

Mujer Pegada No. 6, 2006. Bronze with patina, 87 x 57 x 15.5 in.
Courtesy Hackett-Freedman Gallery, NY.

In the mid-1980s, Manuel Neri began building sculptures that evoked the relief carvings and architectural friezes of antiquity, a materially substantial format based on the integration of figure and ground. At that time, he had been giving exclusive attention to the figure for more than 20 years and already was closely identified with the solitary female form, a motif to which he had given exhaustive consideration in plaster and, more recently, in bronze and marble. This figure, a freestanding, individuated sculptural form, was characterized by a dynamic exchange between its physiologically precise internal structure and Neri’s production of a surface texture at once psychological and intensely physical. At the same time, he had opened it to a loose play of art historical associations. Internalized by the artist, these passed into the work during the building process as flexible, fully synthetic, interconnected elements that isolated and protected the figure, whose nakedness provoked an unsettling sense of vulnerability. This condition was physical and intrinsic, and readily understood as an existential condition, but Neri had further defined it for himself, literally and symbolically, by its susceptible connection to his own hand. Plaster, a material compatible with the speed, energy, invention, and intense concentration with which he worked, caught and fixed the instincts that guided his constructive process. Each figure, then, rendered in the bright, hard, intensely tactile precision of its medium, showed its own vulnerability to be fundamentally analogical, a reflection of the artist’s own difficult but unrelenting struggle for self-description and self-authentication. In 1972, Mary Julia Klimenko became Neri’s primary model, and with her active collaboration, he was able to bring these sculptural concerns to a sharp focus, enabling the work to accept previously unapproachable levels of engagement that would transform the sculpted female body into a mode of autobiography.

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