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The Female Formed

Woman, the principal passion of Bay Area sculptor Manuel Neri, has propelled his long career. But not without controversy--and change.

January 22, 1998|CATHY CURTIS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEWPORT BEACH — A slender female figure with prominent shoulders and small slabs for breasts poses with bent arms and flat hands angled--protectively? self-destructively?--toward her forehead. The rough-textured plaster torso is one of many oddly evocative sculptures by Bay Area sculptor Manuel Neri of his favorite subject: Woman.

But who would guess that the inspiration for "Posturing Series No. 4"--included in a show of Neri's early work, organized by the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.--came from a Vogue magazine photo?

"I'm fascinated by body language," Neri said recently, while supervising the installation of the exhibition at the Orange County Museum of Art.

"I love photography models and dancers, who have that awareness of themselves. Without showing off anything, they are completely aware of their bodies."

At 67, Neri--who had divorced four wives by 1990--has traded in the virile swagger seen in old photographs for a quiet courtliness. Laconic and soft-spoken, he looked relieved when the questions ended and he could step outside for a cigar.

Since the early '70s, his constant model has been Mary Julia Klimenko, a tall woman with the bones of a racehorse, whom he poses to echo certain gestures he has observed on the fly or in photographs.

Seen as if in transition between decisive gestures, Neri's lithe, attenuated figures often convey an inner tension, an off-kilter sense of unease.

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Even the visceral way in which they were made--by quickly slapping on handfuls of plaster and hacking away offending parts with an ax--suggests a certain macho sense of ownership, of the shaping of personality as well as bodily form.

"I've had letters from the [radical feminist artist group] Guerrilla Girls claiming that I'm attacking the female form," Neri said. "[But] I see these things, if they are attacks on the figure, as self-inflicted. What we do to ourselves. How we see ourselves."

Nowadays, he said, "I kind of love the middle-aged woman who has nothing left but her dignity. You know, that kind of woman who . . . has made up her mind about herself. It doesn't have much to do with beauty."

Neri was born in the San Joaquin Valley town of Sanger to emigres from Jalisco, Mexico.

His university-educated father could not pursue a law career in the deeply prejudiced United States of the '30s, obliging him to keep moving--to Canoga Park and Tarzana and finally back to a ranch in Sanger--in search of work. (After his father died of tuberculosis, Neri's mother moved her brood to Oakland, where she worked in a factory.)

Unable to speak English as a child, Neri remembers being sent to school for Indians in Tarzana to learn it. "But we didn't feel deprived or second-class," he said. "We were different, as Latinos, but there was nothing shameful about it. It was our world."

A ceramics class Neri took as relief from his engineering studies at San Francisco City College eventually led him to switch career plans.

Newly enrolled at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland in 1951, Neri met Peter Voulkos, who would soon revolutionize the genteel medium of pottery with expressionistic bulges and gouges. The two set up a ceramics workshop in Montana the following year, and Neri also painted large-scale abstractions.

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Returning to the Bay Area after serving in the Army during the Korean War, Neri made up his mind, he said, "that I wanted to go back to the figure and work with something I really related to."

First came a period of trying out three-dimensional ideas with cast-off materials.

Strolling through the OCMA galleries, Neri pointed to a red-beaked bird fashioned from bits of cardboard, plaster, string and wire. He had made it as a model for Joan Brown--a colleague to whom he was briefly married in the early '60s--after they'd visited stuffed birds in a local museum and she said she wanted to incorporate one in a painting.

Poverty was the initial impetus for making sculptures out of junk, Neri said, and it also led him to make sculptures from plaster.

"It is cheap," he said. "You have no reservations, if something isn't working out, of throwing it out the window."

In a few years, his finances improved--thanks to the Soviets, he joked, whose Sputnik launch spurred the U.S. government to pour money into universities. Arriving at UC Davis in 1965, before it had an art department, he would teach sculpture there for the next 25 years.

Marble began to seduce him in the mid-'70s. But until then, he continued to work in plaster because "it's a blah material, a dumb material. It doesn't dictate to you at all. You can do anything you want to with it, practically, from a polished, glass-like finish to a rough, broken surface.

"Dumb" is a favorite Neri word. He uses it to convey something about his figures that he believes defies verbal description. Ask him about possible emotional undercurrents in his untitled series of women's upper bodies that hang upside down on short lengths of chain, and he'll shake his head.

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