Crafting the woman

Manuel Neri translates the complex language of the female body into art

“Prietas Series V” by Manuel Neri.

“Prietas Series V” by Manuel Neri.

Photo by David Robert

‘The form of a woman represents humanity,” Manuel Neri says.

Neri’s works are a study of the complex posturings, regenerative ability and imperfection of the human form—particularly the female form. Finding the language of the female body richer and more varied than that of the male, Neri’s two-dimensional and sculptural creations are almost exclusively female.

Neri is also fascinated by the role of woman as life-giver. Always faceless and often limbless, the gender of these figures becomes clear through the gentle, subtle curves of their hips, belly and breasts.

“I’m not into representing character in my figures,” Neri says. “The figure is a vehicle for carrying out ideas I’m interested in. … I don’t want [the face] to get in the way.”

Neri, who now has a handful of works on display at Stremmel Gallery, was the premier sculptor associated with the San Francisco figurative school, a movement that grew out of Abstract Expressionism in the 1950s. Much of Neri’s art—his drawings, as well as his sculpture—operates on a paradox: His figures are often deformed or decaying, yet at the same time show signs of resurgent life.

Of his works at Stremmel, this paradox is perhaps most clear in “She Said Series No. 5” (mixed media), a drawing in which a curvy female appears to be dissolving back into her paper-and-ink origins. The woman’s plump abdomen and thighs remain flesh-colored and clearly outlined, while her upper torso and head are barely distinguishable from the rough charcoal background. Only her reproductive regions stay intact, as the rest of her body loses form and recedes into the darkness.

“I’m fascinated by body language in people, how they hide, how they come forward,” Neri says. “It’s really amazing.”

In “Sitting and Standing Study No. 153” (acrylic on printed paper), Neri has taken what appears to be a fashion advertisement featuring two immaculately groomed models and has obscured the models with acrylic paint. One must look carefully to see the two women in their stiff, forced poses—shoulders back, hands on hips, legs pushed forward—hiding behind the smears of white. Neri has coated the women with yet another layer of artificiality—the acrylic—reminding us of the artificial postures that women must adopt in the fashion and advertising worlds.

Two of Neri’s sculptures on display at Stremmel show the artist’s romance with the rough, uncompleted form. The surfaces of Neri’s sculptures are craggy and irregular, and many of his figures are missing at least one limb. According to Henry Geldzahler in Manuel Neri: Early Work, Neri works in the tradition, established by Rodin, which formalizes that “awful yet pleasurable shock we experience on observing mutilations, which we accept in art but would find horrifying in the flesh.”

Neri says he draws inspiration from Greek sculptures that have lost their limbs to the march of time. The figures have gained, he says, a certain beauty from their brokenness. The smaller sculpture on display, “Pecadoras Series III” (bronze), is legless from the knees down, armless and faceless, with a rough texture and a stark simplicity. The larger sculpture, “Prietas Series V” (bronze with oil-based enamel), has all extremities intact, but her rough, jagged enamel surface and uneven distribution of color give her look of appealing fragility.

Women are the more visible sex, expected to sport society’s latest fashion and cosmetic trends. Paradoxically, however, women are revered for their ability to cultivate life in the secrecy of the womb. For me, the most powerful element of Neri’s art is that it calls into question, and ultimately breaks down, the distinction between the inner and the outer woman. Neri has learned to read and to translate that difficult, even cryptic language "spoken" by the female form.