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Review | Manuel Neri: The Human Figure in Plaster and on Paper

Review | Manuel Neri: The Human Figure in Plaster and on Paper

Review | Manuel Neri: The Human Figure in Plaster and on Paper

Yale University Art Gallery, 1111 Chapel Street, New Haven, Connecticut

artgallery.yale.edu

Through January 27, 2019

 Sculptor Manuel Neri in his Carrara Italy studio, 1983, photo by Sally Larsen [ source ]

Sculptor Manuel Neri in his Carrara Italy studio, 1983, photo by Sally Larsen [source]

Manuel Neri: The Human Figure in Plaster and on Paper was organized by gallery director Jock Reynolds, who studied under Neri (American, b. 1930) at the University of California, Davis during the 1970s. The exhibition emphasizes Neri’s works using plaster and paper, although the artist worked with many other materials throughout his career. Early on, Neri chose plaster because it was affordable. He continued to use it throughout his career, mastering more expensive materials like marble and bronze as he advanced. In this show, the immediacy of the paper and plaster complements Neri’s voracious process and the tension of Neri’s confident manipulation of the body is most apparent via these fragile materials.

Neri’s speed is evident throughout the show, especially in the life-size plaster female figures. In fact, most of the figures included in the show are obviously women; only a few busts seemed ambiguous. We often feel an implied reverence for the body, particularly when executed at a similar scale to our own, and initially, I was attracted to the room full of life-sized plaster women.

In the center of the room, beckoning guests to enter, is M.J. Series III (1989)—the initials presumably refer to the model, Mary Julia Raahauge. After his marriage to artist Joan Brown ended, Raahauge became the chief subject for Neri’s works. The catalog essay titled “A Tribute” written by Reynolds deems her his “great muse” and is accompanied by a photograph of a denuded Raahauge crouching awkwardly next to an in-progress sculpture, the sculptor’s ready hands white with plaster. Both made me cringe.

 Manuel Neri,  M.J. Series III  (1989). Plaster, dry pigments, steel armature, Styrofoam core, burlap; 171.45 x 55.88 x 27.94 cm (67 1/2 x 22 x 11 in.). Photo credit: Yale University Art Gallery.  Courtesy of the artist and Hackett / Mill, San Francisco .

Manuel Neri, M.J. Series III (1989). Plaster, dry pigments, steel armature, Styrofoam core, burlap; 171.45 x 55.88 x 27.94 cm (67 1/2 x 22 x 11 in.). Photo credit: Yale University Art Gallery. Courtesy of the artist and Hackett / Mill, San Francisco.

Walking around the room, there were more dubious moments. M.J. Series III is standing up straight, but her hands have not been freed from their plaster blocks. A streak of cobalt paint runs down one arm and splashes of black pigment are scattered around her form. The gesture of the paint is lively, yet she looks stuck. The unformed hands feel heavy as it does in Gorky’s painting The Artist and His Mother (ca. 1926-ca. 1942). (Gorky had watched his mother starve to death.)

Other life-sized sculptures in the show have grossly under-formed or undersized hands, too. Across from M.J. Series III, Bull Jumper III (1989) is on her hands and knees, extending one thin arm with its shriveled fingers. Black paint was smeared in the crevasse between her buttocks and down her back. Her body is pocked in places by Neri’s tools. This gouging of the plaster feels akin to the heavy hand of Peter Voulkos, a lifelong friend. The forceful handling reads differently in abstract ceramic sculptures. By contrast, Neri’s manhandling of materials was applied to the female figure. Taken as a whole, Neri’s sculptures feel pathetic and the bodies seem victimized.

 Manuel Neri,  Bull Jumper III ( 1989). Plaster, water-based pigment, steel armature with styrofoam and burlap; 76.84 x 54.61 x 106.68 cm (30 1/4 x 21 1/2 x 42 in.).  Copyright Artist/Estate/Foundation  / Yale University Art Gallery

Manuel Neri, Bull Jumper III (1989). Plaster, water-based pigment, steel armature with styrofoam and burlap; 76.84 x 54.61 x 106.68 cm (30 1/4 x 21 1/2 x 42 in.). Copyright Artist/Estate/Foundation / Yale University Art Gallery

Some of this perceived violence results from Neri’s process. He was known to work quickly and fearlessly with the wet plaster. In part, this was a necessity. Plaster dries rapidly. Once the material had set, he’d chisel and scrape away at the form, removing an odd appendage to start again if need be. Because of the gestural marks added to his sculptures, Neri—like Voulkos—gets associated with Abstract Expressionist artists, masculine tropes included.

Countless male artists have warped the female body for their creative gain, some without overt sexist inflections. On the way up to the fourth-floor gallery, I passed by several Giacometti sculptures of women. The severely attenuated forms embody the alienation of the post World War II Europe. They feel compressed by the air around them, not the artist.

On the other hand, when Willem de Kooning painted Woman I in 1952, critics cried misogyny. The slashes of thick paint and lurid distortions of the body—the enormous bosom, peg teeth, and googly eyes—got attention and a few raised eyebrows, impressive for the 1950s. He claimed, “Beauty becomes petulant to me. I like the grotesque. It’s more joyous” [1]. Looking at this painting with 2018 eyes, I see some joy. I see some violence, too.

In the short story “The Semplica Girl Diaries” by George Saunders, a suburban dad narrates how he saved up to buy his family their own Semplica Girl. The SGs, as they are called, are lawn ornaments and markers of affluence. As the story progresses, we learn they are actually poor women from places like Laos or Moldova. They have a wire threaded through their brains upon “installation” and their purpose is our enjoyment. Throughout the Western history of art, certain depictions of women remind me of these sad trophies. The intent is to look at the women, but to do so with pleasure would be to view them without empathy.

An attendant joked with me that if I came back at midnight, Neri’s sculptures would come to life. (We are a few days shy of Halloween, after all.) It was funny and it also made me wonder: What might this tribe of misshapen women do when granted the opportunity?  

  1. Willem de Kooning, quoted in John Elderfield, “Woman to Landscape,” in de Kooning, a Retrospective, John Elderfield (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2011), 277.

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