by Roberta Carasso

(Orange County Museum of Art, Newport Beach, Orange County) At the entrance of this exhibition is installed the marble statue Mujer Pegada #6. While it looks much like a Greek caryatid, it is pure 20th Century sculpture and Manuel Neri at his best. Within it is housed years of sculptural experimentation and daring, a surface that treats marble as if it is durable stone, pliable plaster, and canvas upon which to draw. Neri dug into its surface, highlighting the form's contour with a vibrant white textural surface. Not limiting himself to the constraints of a particular piece of marble, distinct slabs of marble are braced together with reinforced steel. And, too, so typical of Neri, the form has been reworked years later--the process of creation never ends.

Inside there is a rich display of Neri's early bold and brightly-colored renderings of the female figure that dominates the exhibition, as it dominates all his art. Although the artist renders the male, he has had a life-long passion for the female form, seeing the female as the magical half of the human duo.

This long awaited exhibition highlights Neri's position as master sculptor among the Bay Area Figurative painters in the '50s and '60s. A small group of San Francisco artists, including Elmer Bischoff, Richard Diebenkorn, David Park, Joan Brown, Nathan Olivera, Paul Wonner, and Neri established their own vision in the San Francisco area, even while being overshadowed by East Coast Abstract Expressionism, emerging Pop and Minimalist art.

Because it was cheap, accessible and submissive, Neri took to plaster. With it, he could hack, chip, add, subtract, build, model, and make the figure do whatever he wished. Entrenched in the painter's world, where thickly textured and highly-colored gestural brushstrokes were integral to the image, Neri transferred these painterly elements to sculpture by adding enamel paint to define three-dimensional form. Thus he turned the sculptural block into the artist's canvas and created some of the most compelling figures in recent art history.

Unfortunately this is not a retrospective but an exhibition of his early years. Consequently, some of his exquisite later phases are omitted. What stands out is Neri's continuing inventiveness and drive to explore virgin sculptural territory. After making color an essential part of the form, as in the Carla series, Neri then eliminated color to focus on the plain white of plaster, manipulating the surface to maximize the light and shadows. When he returned to color, he focused on the squatting, kneeling and bending figures. The compactness of these forms, where appendages merge with torso, allowed Neri to deal with physical tension as it relates to surface, color, and form. In The Bathers, crouching figures emerge from a sea of plaster. In Kneeling Figure, a splash of red green.

Included in the show is Neri's fascination with heads--male and female--and with a series of birds he rendered. His series of somber heads are reminiscent of those of Alberto Giacometti. Only Neri's are defined with paint and have their features drawn with a graphite pen. Also, these heads float on triangular wooden supports. His grouping of birds are perhaps the lightest and most humorous aspect of the show. Masterfully conceived from cardboard, plaster, string and assorted media, the birds look as if they would take flight any moment. This is because all of Neri's forms have a sense of aliveness. They are visceral, sensual, and raw being stripped bare to its essence. Neri's art is delicious poetry in-the-round.

"Couple: Male Figure," plaster/oil-based/enamel/aluminum paint/wood/wire/burlap, 1962.

"The Bathers," plaster/oil-based enamel/aluminum paint/wood/wire/canvas, 1958.

"Kneeling Figure," plaster/oil-based enamel/aluminum paint/wood/
wire/burlap, c. 1960, reworked 1962-64.