By Susan Froyd
By Byron Graham
By Robin Edwards
By Bree Davies
By Josiah M. Hesse
By Bree Davies
By Susan Froyd
By Kate Gibbons
Like that primitive art, the surfaces of Neri's sculptures have been eroded. They are pitted and pockmarked in places, smoothly polished in others. These polished areas are either the natural golden color of the bronze or have been painted with vivid colors. The polychromatic handling of the sculptures, like their basic forms, was inspired by art history. Notes Neri, "The ancient Greeks painted their sculptures."
But the use of color in sculpture is also a natural outgrowth of ceramics, the medium that first occupied Neri in art school. It was during his school days in California, he says, that the work of a classmate, Peter Voulkos (who would later become one of the most important ceramic artists in the world), came to impress Neri. It wasn't Voulkos's style--abstract expressionism--but rather "his command of the materials and his respect for the demands of the materials" that Neri says he found most moving.
Neri's mastery of his own materials is well illustrated in his life-size sculptures, four of which anchor and dominate the Robischon show. The spontaneous gestures Neri created in the plaster originals are perfectly preserved in the transition to bronze, and the bronzes themselves have been expertly finished. Each of the four standing female figures has a featureless face, furthering Neri's universalist aims. And one is more beautiful than the next, even though their androgynous broad shoulders and small breasts make them barely anatomically correct.
In the sculpture "Untitled," the female figure conveys a totemic presence. She blindly stares straight ahead, her face a simple smear that has been additionally obscured by a heavy coat of white oil enamel paint resembling a veil. Much of the torso also has been painted, in both white and yellow enamels.
In spite of the lack of detail and the unexpected and unnatural colors, Neri achieves a lifelike feel by the casual pose the figure strikes. In this case, both arms and legs are crossed in a relaxed stance. Subtly different casual postures are imparted by the other three large sculptures, "Prietas Series V," "Untitled Standing Figure No. 7" and "Ostraca."
Like the larger works, the smaller sculptures are concerned with the female nude, and they're every bit as good. Again the figures are minimally detailed and have typically been decorated with oil enamels (though a few feature the more traditional approach to finishing bronze, patination). But in comparison to the life-size nudes, these sculptures are fragmentary. Some are missing arms and legs, while others are partly submerged in architectonic forms. In both cases, the reference to antiquity is easy to recognize.
In "Isla Negra Series II" and the very similar "Isla Negra Series III," the crouching figures emerge from slabs that form the backs of the sculptures. More than anything else in this show, these works reflect the influence of another sometime resident of Carrara, Michelangelo. Both "Isla Negra" pieces recall the later mannerist work of the Renaissance master, where the figure was conceived as though it was being revealed from within a block, instead of appearing to have been carved out of it.
Though still concerned with the female nude, the Neri drawings at Robischon are much more abstract than the sculptures--a few broad strokes of color minimally suggest the human figure. And despite being called drawings, these works are actually painted using dry pigments and oil paint sticks, relating in that way to the painted finishes of Neri's sculptures. Neri, however, says he doesn't do paintings. "If it's three-dimensional, it's a sculpture; if it's on paper, it's a drawing [and] paintings are done on canvas," he says. "I don't work on canvas."
The brightly colored figural sculptures and drawings by Neri remind us that the artist has long created work that anticipated the direction of recent contemporary art. But don't hold that against him. Neri never uses color, as have so many who came after him, to prop up second-rate work.
Along with the other representational artists active in San Francisco in the Fifties and Sixties, Neri was dismissed by critics of the time as too conservative, even old-fashioned. But those naysayers have been proven wrong. Given the events of the Eighties and Nineties--and judging from the Robischon exhibit, which is one of the best shows to hit Denver in years--Neri was actually forward-looking.
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