Manuel Neri (born April 12, 1930) – an American artist and renowned member of the “second generation” of the Bay Area Figurative Movement – has long worked in an idiom that does not quite conform to any of the forces that dominate sculptural art. With his infinite worship of form and texture, he has adopted a different, free attitude to natural form, concentrating his efforts on the eternal plastic theme - a female nude, finding in it a permanent source of ideas. "Manuel Neri: The Human Figure in Plaster and on Paper" at the Yale Center reminds us in fresh terms of Neri's artistic mojo and the underpinnings of his work.
Born in Sanger, California, to immigrant parents who fled Mexico after the Revolution, Manuel Neri pursued his education at the California College of Applied Arts and at the California School of Art (now the San Francisco Institute of Art), and worked under Richard Diebenkorn and Elmer Bischoff. Persistent studio practice has convinced the artist in the inexhaustibility of form and texture. With his infinite worship of these constructs, he has adopted a different, free attitude to natural form, concentrating his efforts on the eternal plastic theme - a female nude, seeing in it a permanent source of ideas. Neri taught at the California School of Art from 1959–1965. Further on, he has also taken on a teaching career at the University of California, continuing to impress students with his outstanding creative process and effective work with live models, resulting in the strong emotional charge, dynamism and enigmatic depth of his work. While succeeding in giving young artists lessons in honest, complex and uncompromising process of creation, he continued serving one of the ultimate purposes of the art – through touching the Divine, to celebrate the beauty and mystery of human vulnerability, along with the nuances and phenomenology in relationships between a man and a woman.
Neri is mainly known for his life-size sculptures – depictions of female figure, figurative in nature, focused on poses and gestures, positioned in space, often exalted, and accentuated by the exaggerated crudity of texture and blurriness of forms. Uneven surfaces and strokes of color are among the key elements of his pieces, causing his sculptural approach to be often referred to as “painterly”.
While working with live models, the artist consistently recreated their image in a way which was very conditional – by not imbuing his work with portrait resemblance, Manuel Neri concentrated on giving it a plastic visibleness and a strong emotional charge.
His sculptures and works on paper are neither portraits nor genre scenes – the mannequin-figures are either posed over space or a background of local colors or whitened background, frameless; their egg-shaped heads, the lack of obvious portrait-like features, raw exposed poses acknowledging both natural and otherworldly in human origin.
Neri’s work can also be characterized by a particular way of communicating with the audience within space. The figures are enveloped in a space vortex; both his sculptures and works on paper are, fundamentally, non-verbal, forcing the subject – the audience – to relate to its senses and respond on psychological level, with the life-size sculpture format contributing to this complex perception- reflection process.
While observing Neri’s sculptural works, you get caught between a duality of notions hidden within: from one side, there is a transparent eroticism of poses, an elaborate provocation in the depictions of female body. From the other – the female figures could be perceived as godlike in their painterly melancholy, frailness, which makes them soulful and meditative, almost holy in their emotional withdrawal, their individuality and their mood of existential loneliness.
This duality in sculptural pieces is complemented by harmonious sketchiness of Manuel Neri’s drawings. Essentially, they all are a dynamic reflection on a dialogue between Neri and his models, arousing and underlining the tension nature of this eternal conversation, its dramaticism and its shiftiness.
Altogether, the combination of artist’s interest in color and his painterly vision, his classical sculptural perception of figure and roughness of texture – lend Neri’s work an individual and recognizable form. Meanwhile, the extraordinary emotional tension further reaffirms his unique artistic vision, granting his work a dialogue-like ability and psychological power, keeping art historians and viewers wondering about the primal force and limitless freedom of his works.
Manuel Neri’s contribution to sculpture was widely recognized both in the country and around the world, and in 2006 he received the International Lifetime Achievements of the Sculpture Center at the Modern Sculpture Prize.
Neri’s depictions of human figure in plaster and on paper are a striking coda to life, and call out to the subconscious depth of the human psyche, where questions are raised, and a hidden revelation of artist’s reality is hidden and waiting to be demystified.