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The Robischon Gallery has launched its fall and winter schedule with Manuel Neri, an important exhibit that focuses on the latest creations by the world-famous California artist. Neri has become a household name around here; this is the third time in recent years that Robischon has presented a solo turn...
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The Robischon Gallery has launched its fall and winter schedule with Manuel Neri, an important exhibit that focuses on the latest creations by the world-famous California artist. Neri has become a household name around here; this is the third time in recent years that Robischon has presented a solo turn by the Bay Area sculptor.

The show, which fills all four of the front spaces in the gallery, imparts a distinctive and somber ambience. In the last couple of years, Neri has moved from the bright colors that were his signature toward a softer, off-white monochrome finish. Although there are some polychromed sculptures at Robischon as well as some paintings on paper, the show is dominated by the monochrome finished pieces that have been set against the gallery's white walls.

Born in northern California in 1930, Neri moved to San Francisco in 1949 to begin San Francisco City College's fine-arts program. He went on to study at the University of California at Berkeley, the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland and the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco. He taught briefly at CSFA and at UC-Berkeley, but he spent 25 years teaching at the UC campus in Davis.

As early as 1953, Neri was exhibiting his work in museum shows in California, but it wasn't until the 1980s that he became widely known outside of his own stamping grounds. Today his work is included in private collections and museums around the world, including our own Denver Art Museum. That piece, a life-sized bronze figure of a nude woman from 1991, was purchased from the Robischon in 1996. The sculpture is now going out on loan after being on exhibit for the last year or so in the Stanton Galleries on the DAM's first floor.

One of the reasons Neri's fortunes soared in the 1980s was the increased interest by art historians in the figural abstractionists that were working in the San Francisco area beginning in the 1940s and '50s. This group, who used the human form as a taking-off point for abstract painting and sculpture, is now seen as the chief rival of the New York-based abstract-expressionists who specialized in non-objective abstraction in the mid-twentieth century. At 69, Neri is younger than many of the figural abstractionists, but he has long been associated with them. And his work over the last two decades is an obvious continuation of his interests of fifty years ago, providing his oeuvre with the weight of artistic continuity.

Although only three objects are included in the first grouping of Neri pieces at Robischon, the space is entirely filled. It's not that the pieces are large -- they're not -- but they have been placed in such a way that each one may be seen individually, without competition from the others. This spare approach to installation, which is seen throughout the show, is quite effective.

The first sculpture is Untitled III, a life-sized bronze of a headless and armless nude woman that looks back to classical Greece. But it's a little funky, too: Although it is made of bronze, it was cast from a wood-and-plaster original, and the armature at the base was cast along with the figure. The sculpture has been partly painted with oil-based enamels in white and pale pink and relates to Neri's more recent, light-colored sculptures.

One such piece, Ostrakon Series No. 1, sits across the room; it is a small bronze of a headless female torso finished in a creamy-white patina. The figure is conventionalized and is even more closely related to classical antiquity than Untitled III. But Jim Robischon, the gallery's director, points out that Ostrakon is formally simpler than Untitled III and is related more in form and color to Neri's marble sculptures, none of which have been included in this show.

Hanging between the two sculptures is Mary Julia, a painting done in acrylic and graphite on paper. The pose of the figure in this work is reminiscent of the one in Untitled III. Neri's works on paper are expressionistic in style and are a direct corollary to his sculpture.

One of the most beautiful things in this strong show is Ostrakon #7, a plaster sculpture decorated with a little bit of paint. Set on a warped piece of wood, the delicate plaster surface of the sculpture reveals Neri's every mark; it's positively otherworldly.

Neri's spontaneity is also revealed in a set of three bronze-cast figure studies; the artist started out working in ceramics, and that influence is still seen in this group.

Pecadoras Series II, a bronze with a light-colored patina, is one of several small figures lined up in the second half of the show. Like Ostrakon #7, it relates to classical sculpture, as do the others in this area.

Manuel Neri is a strong season opener for the Robischon Gallery and must already be counted among the best shows of recent times.

The same can be said about the gorgeous Ricardo Mazal: Recent Paintings, an exhibit at the Rule Modern and Contemporary Gallery on Broadway. Filled with paintings so fresh off the easel that the air is filled with the odor of linseed oil, it marks the second time that the gallery has presented the Mexican-born, New York-based artist in a solo.

Mazal, who was born in Mexico in 1950 and later trained as a graphic designer at the University of Illinois, moved to Barcelona, Spain, in 1984 to teach himself to paint. He studied the work of abstract painters, including Germany's Gerhard Richter and New Yorker William Baziotes, and produced his first mature series of paintings in the late 1980s. These were exhibited at the Scott Alan Gallery in New York in 1989. Impressed with his reception there, Mazal moved to the city in 1991 and has remained ever since.

Mazal sees his current body of work, the paintings of The Spiral Square Series, as being the culmination of his work over the last ten years. "They come from the earlier paintings," he says. "They're an evolution, not a revolution. They include many of the stages my paintings went through over the last ten years."

In the late '80s, Mazal was using thin washes of oil and turpentine. In this way, he says, he was "creating light by using the white of the canvas" that showed through the thin but dark washes. The bottom layer, the ground used for all of the new Spiral Square Series, has been done in the same way as the older paintings. Instead of constituting his entire technical repertoire, however, the staining is only one of several techniques he uses now.

In 1991, Mazal began to incorporate an image inspired by the death of his mother. As she lay dying, Mazal's family members surrounded her bed, hand in hand. From this traumatic experience, the artist began to place hidden circles in his paintings. The circles within the squares are redolent of multiple meanings and are another longtime characteristic seen in his newest paintings. In 1993 and 1994 he began to conceive of his paintings as open books, and the random letters and numbers in his new pieces, partially obscured by over-painting, make reference to this.

From 1995 to 1997, Mazal began to cover his under-painting with heavy bars of color, between which only glimpses of the ground were visible. These heavy marks and lines were inspired by the work -- as unlikely as it may seem -- of the late Piet Mondrian, whose geometric paintings were a precursor to the work of the minimalists. This is something seemingly anathema to a maximalist such as Mazal. The bars can still be seen in his most recent paintings, but they have been widely separated, revealing much more of the layers underneath.

Mazal goes to great lengths to explain the origins of various aspects of the Spiral Square paintings because they look so different from his earlier work. Yet even without his remarks, the new paintings are clearly an outgrowth of the older ones.

Ricardo Mazal: Recent Paintings is commanded by four major works exhibited in the main showroom. Four is an important number for Mazal, who almost always creates in multiples of four. Although each painting features a different dominant color at the surface layer, all are linked by the creamy ocher grounds they share. The paintings are named for their dominant color schemes: Black I, Red I, White I and Yellow I. Each is a masterpiece.

"These paintings truly bring everything together. I have the feeling that I have achieved something important with this show," Mazal says. "I have found something that's my own, something so alive and vibrant."

Speaking of alive and vibrant, how about the fact that art has once again found itself at the center of a full-frontal attack by right-wingers? The flash point is an exhibition in, of all places, New York City, the art center of the world. The last time something like this happened was ten years ago, and it started not in New York, but out in the hinterlands.

In 1989, a traveling group exhibit organized by the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, included a piece that would live in infamy. New York artist Andres Serrano had snapped a color shot of a plastic crucifix immersed in urine. Aptly called Piss Christ, it was a part of Serrano's Immersion series, in which the photographer took reproductions of religious and secular sculptures, placed them in urine, blood or semen, backlit them, and photographed the resulting tableaux. The cibachrome prints, like Piss Christ, are beautiful.

The SCCA had received a National Endowment for the Arts grant of $15,000 to defray shipping costs, which meant that the show was, at least in part, federally funded. Suddenly, contemporary art was a topic being discussed in both houses of Congress -- and that was not a good thing. The political battles fought against public funding of controversial art went on for years. The result? The NEA received slightly more than half the funding this year than it had before the Neanderthals in Congress had ever heard of Piss Christ.

The current controversy surrounds a traveling exhibit called Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection. The show, which was originally presented at the Royal Academy of the Arts in London in 1997, just opened at New York's Brooklyn Museum of Art. Like Piss Christ, a piece in this show that mixes religious imagery with excrement has been the flash point for conservatives.

The Holy Virgin Mary, a painting done in 1996 by Chris Ofili, a London-based artist of Nigerian descent, is a monumental piece in which paper, oil and glitter and -- oh, yes -- elephant dung have been used to create a meticulous pointillist image of a black Madonna. Elephant dung, sacred to some Nigerians, is a specialty of Ofili's, and works like The Holy Virgin Mary cinched last year's prestigious Turner Prize, given by the venerable Tate Gallery, for the Anglo-African painter. Though most news accounts describe the painting as having been "smeared" with dung, Ofili has actually applied it quite carefully. Interestingly, like Serrano, Ofili was raised as a Roman Catholic.

As was the case the last time, it is a conservative New York Republican who is making political hay by attacking contemporary art. Last time it was former senator Alfonse D'Amato. This time it is New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who is following in the footsteps of his old friend and supporter. Giuliani is using the situation as a way to bash the more art-friendly Democrats, and since art is such a weak player in society, it can easily be used as a club.

Giuliani's office has threatened to revoke the lease of the Brooklyn Museum -- a lease, by the way, that dates back to the nineteenth century. The mayor has also threatened to revoke the museum's city funding, to turn off the electricity, and to fire and replace its board of directors. In response, the museum has filed a lawsuit to stop the city.

Whatever the outcome of this current assault on free expression in the fine arts, the art world, like last time, will wind up losing -- and not just in terms of funding. Instead of having a real aesthetic discussion about whether Ofili and the other artists in Sensation are any good, museum professionals, artists and critics have been forced to defend the show as a symbol of freedom. Although this self-censorship is an appropriate response, given the dire straits in which art once again finds itself, it precludes open criticism.

Sadly, the tenor of the times forbids such a luxury.

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