As I entered the gallery and the first of the three, Manuel Neri: Figura/Form + Fragment, came into view, I gasped. The exhibit is a major solo devoted to an eighty-something artist who is among the last of the second generation of California figurative abstractionists. Back in the 1950s, when Neri started out, abstract expressionism was the style of choice for advanced artists, and his early work exemplified that.
Soon, though, he turned to highly abstracted renditions of the human figure; by then, abstract figuration had gained traction on the West Coast. While a student, Neri had worked with Richard Diebenkorn and Elmer Bischoff, and he became part of a scene that included such notables as Bruce Conner, Jay DeFeo and Joan Brown, to whom he was briefly married in the 1960s.
Neri’s signature sculptures dominate this show at Robischon. Most are painted bronzes, but there are also a couple of plasters and some drawings. Regardless of medium, they invariably depict women — and mostly a particular woman, at that: Mary Julia Klimenko, whom Neri has used as his model since the 1970s. These sculptures focus on the figure’s poses, postures and implicit suggestions of movement, but Neri isn’t interested in filling in the details. The sculptures, and even the drawings, bring to mind classical statuary in varied states of ruin — both in their forms, which are essentially traditional, and their surfaces, because Neri has distressed them. In places, the torsos, arms and legs are covered with gouged-out passages, while the hands, feet and faces have been smoothed over and conventionalized into vaguely accurate shapes. A number of these sculptures have smears of different colors of oil paint freely applied here and there. It’s as though Neri has attempted to push figuration as far as he can into abstraction while still allowing the viewer to immediately recognize the subject as a female nude.
The entire Neri solo is spectacular, but one grouping is a particular showstopper. Three life-sized pieces (two standing figures bracketing a seated one) are displayed on a long, low plinth; off to one side are two engaging plasters — one a small maquette, the other a full-sized figure. The plasters have an immediacy that the bronzes lack, and they’re also instructive, illustrating how Neri builds his sculptures before they are cast in bronze by using a wooden base and a hidden metal armature covered with heavily worked plaster.
Like the Neri solo, Gary Komarin: Mr. Blonde is a full-tilt effort — but it embodies a different approach. Installed in three spaces off to the side, Komarin’s paintings don’t include readily recognizable imagery, though the shapes he inserts are broadly evocative of vessels.
Komarin has written that he has no preconceptions when he starts a painting and uses instinct not only to carry it out, but to know when a particular piece is finished. Most sport a richly painted color field serving as the ground, with drawn elements floating below it — having been partly hidden with paint-outs — or on top, appearing to float right at the picture plane. Another winning feature of these Komarin abstracts is the unusual palettes in striking colors marked by some unexpected tonal combinations, as in “A Suite of Blue Sea, Eleuthera,” in which he juggles apricot and Wedgwood blue accented by pink and acid green. The individual colors are variegated, so there’s a range of shades from dark to light within each. One of the ways that Komarin pulls this off is by making custom tints, creating thinned-out pigments using latex house paint combined with spackle cut with water that he applies in one coat after another.
Komarin is a New York artist who, as a grad student in the 1970s at Boston University, worked closely with an artist who would become his mentor: the late Philip Guston. A first-generation abstract expressionist, Guston later turned to cartoonish dumb art, which was at first ridiculed and today is revered. From these pieces, it’s apparent that Komarin was inspired much more by Guston’s abstract-expressionist phase than by his later work, even if the vessel shapes do recall Guston’s later style, as they’re crudely handled in a similar way. Despite these inspirational debts, Komarin’s vision is clearly his own: He loots Guston’s legacy for what serves him, then reassembles it in his own distinctive way.
The last of the three hits at Robischon is Scott Chamberlin: Heads, with nearly a dozen bas-relief ceramic forms lining the walls of the large gallery at the back. Chamberlin’s work falls somewhere between that of Neri and Komarin — at least in terms of abstraction versus figuration. Like Neri, he’s abstracting and conventionalizing the human form — heads, in this case — but his crude handling of the contours of his shapes is reminiscent of the outlines of Komarin’s vessel forms.
Chamberlin has been a ceramics professor at the University of Colorado Boulder for decades, and is one of the state’s most significant clay artists. He first became well known here for his multi-part installations in which a spatial rhythm was created through the juxtaposition of vertical spires offset by large bowls or blobs. These newer plaque- or hunting-trophy-like sculptures are notably simpler than those older pieces, as each comprises just a single element. The forms he employs seem to be inspired by internal (and even external) organs, with some of the Heads sculptures evocative of kidneys or livers as much as human heads. But others bring to mind stone-age sculptures, with the face conveyed by a simple vertical line for a nose. And then there are those that have an almost comical appearance, with preposterous elements like floppy dog ears or suggestive protuberances.Not only are Chamberlin’s forms striking, but so are the sumptuous, mostly matte glazes he uses on them — typically just a single shade for each piece. His skill as a glaze chemist really shows in some of the out-of-this-world colors he conjures up. The deep tones — notably an incredibly dark blue, a vibrant orangey red and an ethereal celadon green — are particularly fine. It’s been some time since Chamberlin exhibited his work in Denver, but his influence is widely seen in the pieces of many other area artists interested in ceramic sculpture.
These three fabulous visual experiences are set to leave Robischon just before those Boys of Summer return, so get there now — before baseball fans take up all the parking spaces in LoDo.
Manuel Neri, Gary Komarin and Scott Chamberlin, through April 2 at Robischon Gallery, 1740 Wazee Street, 303-298-7788, robischongallery.com.