Robischon Gallery proudly presents “FIGURA | Form + Fragment,” a unique culminating exhibition by esteemed American artist Manuel Neri. In the gallery’s fifth solo exhibition for the artist, Robischon celebrates Manuel Neri as a significant sculptor of international note, by featuring select life-size sculptures and maquettes in both plaster and bronze, along with works on paper. Neri, now eighty-six years of age, has allowed for an exhibition of his work which spans from 1980 to 2013, as further confirmation to his audiences of his standing as an important connecting voice to the Bay Area Figurative Movement of the 1950s, as well as a contemporary artist with his own sense of form and bold quality of surface. From then until now, Neri’s first chosen medium of plaster – a mixture of wet sand and pulverized limestone or gypsum – has always offered a highly sensitive surface for the artist’s instinctive mark. For Neri, with his family roots in Mexico, and ties to Italy as well, the material of plaster with its historical and alive qualities inherently provides a link to classical sculpture and ancient typologies, while providing a vehicle for both disciplined and energetic intuitive expression. The life-size plaster figure on exhibition, entitled Catun Series IV (Tavla), along with an additional Ostrakon plaster maquette, conveys the artist’s masterful and brave commitment to his essential material since his earliest plaster figures of the late 1950s. Chiseled, marked and painted with enamel via the artist’s signature abstract approach, Neri’s affinity toward plaster and its surface quality, critically informs his bronze life-size figures and bronze fragments. The sculptural works on view, highlight a kind of circularity in color and surface – from the inherent natural white of the plaster, to the artist’s unpredictable use of charged or muted yellows and blues on both plaster and bronze, to sculptures cast in bronze, though cloaked as if plaster, in layers of white enamel. The more predictable use of color and material are radically defied by the artist, as gesture and surface ignite the work.
Since the early 1970s, the dynamic Mary Julia Klimenko, with her active collaboration, became Manuel Neri’s primary model for his numerous, highly-recognized works in varied mediums of plaster, ceramic, bronze, marble and mixed media on paper. From the artist’s widely-shown, large-scale standing wall-relief sculptures to his signature life size figures, Neri has maintained the freedom of abstraction alongside an abiding sculptural discourse with the distilled female figure - both for its potentiality for full creative expression, as well as through the identifiable form, as a representative for all human life. Neri has rarely wavered from the raw and powerful essence of female forms in his work, and respectfully so, by virtue of his quiet and introspective nature. Every figural work reveals its own vulnerability or vitality - and with pared down essentials, each work communicates a formal sense of abstraction, along with an inherent opportunity for narrative. For some viewers, the sculptures’ raked surfaces, small shoulders, closed hands and intentionally featureless faces, may convey a sense of universality and speak to the fragility of the human condition. To others, the exploration is beautifully abstract and formal. Neri’s embrace of the expressive, even primal, in gestural shape and mark, transcends any binary discourse between abstraction and its antithesis: figural-based work. Integrating both sculpture and painting in his work, Neri’s figural imagery is his primary vehicle for abstraction with his personal vocabulary of incised, furrowed or painted elements which delineate his often highly textured and yet nuanced figures.
As author and independent scholar Bruce Nixon illustrates in his essay entitled “Manuel Neri and the Assertion of Modern Figurative Sculpture,” Neri’s early choice of figuration was greeted with trepidation since abstraction dominated the art of the time. Even artists with a broader cultural recognition such as Alberto Giacometti, faced similar resistance with figural sculpture during the advent of abstraction, but the relevance of the figure equally prevails.” Nixon states, “Neri values the centrality of the figure in the history of art and its immense eloquence as a form, but at the same time, he is always aware that, in the atmosphere of the late twentieth century, he will be required to establish himself as the authority in his work, the source of both its authenticity and its communicability.” In this context, Neri has produced “perhaps the most formidable body of figurative sculpture in post-war American art.” Nixon continues, “Neri’s work…is idiomatic, inimitable and immediately recognizable – forms of delicate integrity and evocative gesture are submitted to the addition of a highly developed colorist and a textural treatment of surface that recreates the figure as an articulate ‘speaking’ subject indigenous to the artist. Neri constructs forms that capture the condition of the figure/artist striving to make itself/himself known in a world of time and spatial divide. Neri’s figures strive to ascertain how the human expresses itself across those same spaces, and to discover ways in which expression might be amplified through the artist’s means.” With great dedication over Manuel Neri’s many creative and productive decades, and by cultivating a truly authentic, evocative and hard won personal lexicon, the artist not only serves his highest calling in the studio, but once again shores up the timeless truth for the viewer, that the discipline of art and the inspiration that follows is fully extant in the modern present.