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MANUEL NERI

Locked in layers of plaster is a story of endless love. She represents a tension so thick it can only be cut by a machete. Yet she must be carefully crafted because their deep affection is also vulnerable. The juxtaposition between her jagged edges and smooth detail creates a surface that’s volatile to its core. Streaks of red and black paint create a colorful picture of unfettering passion. She’s the mute in the middle of this love triangle, who understands the relationship between this artist and this muse better than anyone. Her abstraction makes her mysterious, but her gesture tells their truth. She is the witness!

FIGURATIVELY SPEAKING

The power of the figure – the good ones have always been able to evoke emotion by gesture and posturing. Think of the significance of one raised shoulder, a tilted head or hands behind the back in Rodin’s Lovers. Or in his more famous piece, The Kiss, focus on the desire in her wanting embrace and his strong, yet succumbing advance. There’s a depth in these sculptures that absolutely needs to be explored.

Now look at a Manuel Neri. The subject is different, but the genius is the same. A product of the Bay Area figurative movement, his sculptures of the female form are metaphors for life and existence. They accept joy and despair and embrace the fact that we are what we are. The life-sized sculptures are full of ambiguous possibilities: powerful, yet fragile; stiff, yet animated; violently mutilated, yet enticingly erotic. As these contradictions suggest, the human condition is not easy – it’s complicated. Neri says his use of the female figure “has to do with the role art is playing in society – it deals with everything, our fears, etc. I wanted an image that represented all of mankind, and for me, the female does that. Man may have the power, but women have the magic.”

Neri has spent his lifetime exploring the possibilities of pose, gesture and material. His art is one big battle between color, form and material. Through years of sketches, drawings and paintings, he’s analyzed how shapes and hues fit together. Manuel is careful to point out that the preparatory work is not a blueprint, instead an avenue to find feeling in the female figure. Through texture and paint, he’s able to simulate the effect of actual flesh while bringing out the inner emotion of the figures. Neri’s bronzes, marbles and plasters immortalize the amazing adventure of being alive. While they don’t physically move, if you let them, they have the power to move you. In other words, when a master craftsman has a story to tell, don’t stop at the cover of the book.

Leafing back through the chapters of Neri’s success, one thing becomes abundantly clear; the catalyst for much of his creative process is, and always will be, a vivacious poet named Mary Julia Klimenko. She has Irish and Portuguese blood, big eyes, long, dark hair and an elegant smile. For 34 years, Manuel and Mary Julia have forged an unbreakable and uncontrollable bond. Historically speaking, their relationship may be the most dynamic and important example of artist and muse ever.

COLORFUL CHEMISTRY

“The universe threw us together,” Mary Julia says. “In most relationships the people involved control it. We can’t control this relationship.” Fate put these two together, threw them into an art studio and then turned up the heat. It’s been searing ever since.

The backdrop: a converted church on a sleepy side street near the waterfront in Benicia. Some of the windows have holes, the paint is peeling and globs of plaster dot the floor. Stained glass allows a kaleidoscope of colors to dance around them as they work. The high ceilings hold their secrets. As she stands before him naked and trusting, he sees her soul.

Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

Several stiff, plaster sculptures are lined up before them. Mary Julia is Manuel’s vehicle, an axe is his tool. With a powerful swing, the once lifeless material takes its first breath. It may seem like a violent beginning, but the focus is on the beauty of what’s left, not on the insignificance of what’s lost. The careful chiseling of a shoulder or methodical massaging of a knee changes the intensity. Tarantula music surges out of the speakers, adding to the ambiance. It’s Italian and is supposed to cure a spider bite. The pace gets faster and faster and the singing louder and louder, as it drives out the poison.

He glances at Mary Julia, carefully posed like he wants her. She is only a reference. By now, he knows every curve of her body. Neri’s attention shifts back to the sculptures. He is driven by pure emotion; his head stays out of the way. He mixes lavender pigments and slaps some on an arm. Another streak on the torso. A radiant yellow on the face. It’s in-the-moment feeling, action painting full of intensity. The color adds energy and blurs boundaries. Despair, sadness, joy, vulnerability, confusion… the haunting beauty of emotion grown out of a sack of plaster, saws, and paint. It’s a reflection of an inward emotional charge felt between artist and muse that gives the sculpture feeling.

Manuel sees the world in shapes and color, Mary Julia adds the words. When he lays down his tools, she picks up a book. The words of Lorca, Rilke and Neruda drip off her tongue. The prose is powerful, her inflection is longing. He smokes a cigar. She wears a kimono, he’s covered in paint. Both are relaxed. Mary Julia then pulls out a poem she’d written the night before. It, like all others, is about him.

I am your music
I am the words through which you pass to get to the lake
The lake accepts us totally and there we commit
All the acts of humans
A small smile comes to Manuel’s face and he nods. “It’s like we live a life inside the studio that is more real than life outside of it,” Mary Julia says. “He knows me down to my last fiber and will always protect me.”

TWIST OF FATE

Lovers? Of course. But Manuel and Mary Julia have never taken the plunge. Perhaps that’s because they know all to well what it’s like to hit rock bottom. With seven failed marriages and ten kids between them, their history with relationships is full of blemishes. When it comes to their bond, however, it may bend, but neither will let it break.

Women love Manuel and he doesn’t mind “sampling the fruit,” as Mary Julia puts it. On one occasion, Mary Julia went out to get Chinese food during a break in their work. When she got back, he wasn’t there. That’s because he went to be with another woman. Mary Julia found him, brought him back to the studio and a nasty fight ensued. She won. Another time he brought one of his “groupies” into the studio while Mary Julia was modeling. She did her job. But after the woman left, Mary Julia threw Manuel’s axe through a gigantic wall mirror. “I was amazed that glass rains down like that. It didn’t just break,” she says. “I told him, ‘Don’t ever do that to me again.'” And he hasn’t.

For as in-sync as these two can be, when they venture to the other side of the spectrum, it isn’t pretty. Manuel can be a backseat driver, Mary Julia has a temper. Both occasionally toss out “F bombs.” Each claims the other is the evil twin. But deep down, these two share a love that’s too deep to measure. “I don’t care what you’re doing as long as you’re breathing,” she tells him. “Every time I see you, I see you as the first time I saw you,” he tells her.

Great artists make great lovers; they do not make great spouses. That’s because they are married to their work. Manuel and Mary Julia know from experience and have refused to mess things up. Jealousy, heartache, adventure, true happiness… it’s an emotional rollercoaster that neither wants to end. “Our relationship is too intense and I don’t want to ruin it,” Mary Julia says. “I don’t know what would happen if you tried to domesticate us.”

They met by chance really. It was a fleeting moment for most that fate refused to isolate. In 1972, both lived in Benicia and went to a party hosted by a mutual friend. They spoke for less than five minutes, neither said anything special, and then the party was over. Manuel didn’t even get her name, but that night when he got home, he couldn’t stop thinking about her. “She had this energy about her. Her body language was very expressive and interesting in the way she presented herself to people, how she moved and the poses she took in a crowd,” Neri says.

It wasn’t about beauty. It was about structure. Neri had been a professional artist who’d spent two decades exploring the female form. What he saw in Mary Julia was an awkwardness that he simply couldn’t ignore. She was very bony, tiny and thin. But she had this elegance about her, a certain gesture that conveyed an energy better than any song he’d ever heard or poem he’d ever read.

The next day, Neri called the hostess with quite a proposition for the anonymous guest. He wanted Mary Julia to pose for him. “At first, I wasn’t sure if he was even an artist,” Klimenko says. “I’d never heard of him and thought he was probably just some creep.” But he wasn’t, and it turned out to be just the adventure Mary Julia needed in her life.

THE MUSE TAKES SHAPE

The term muse has Greek origin, a type of goddess that literally means “song” or “poem”. In mythology, there were nine muses, all the daughters of Zeus who presided over various arts. Mary Julia Klimenko never set out to wear that crown, but it surely does fit her well.

Mary Julia was born in Vallejo in 1946. She was the oldest of five siblings and the only daughter. So naturally, she was a bit of a tomboy playing army and war games with her brothers. She destroyed girl toys. Her family was blue collar, very traditional and very Catholic. Every night Dad sat at the head of the table for the family dinner. Mary Julia’s three aunts were nuns. “Catholicism scared me growing up,” she says. “So I rebelled.”

http://fineartamerica.com/images-medium/yellow-aura-manuel-neri.jpgBy the age of 27, Mary Julia was married for the third time and had three children. She was a housewife without a college degree, although she was taking classes at a local community college. When she met Manuel at that party in Benicia, he was sixteen years older than Mary Julia and had already gone through a couple divorces himself. He’d seen the world and enjoyed it all, but she hadn’t. “When I met Manuel, I had very little experience. I was miserable with longing and curiosity.”

“Nothing was going to stop this thing we had,” she says. “It wasn’t up to us.” The chemistry was immediate and intense. “I was more full of life and had more energy from being with him,” Mary Julia says. “It was like turning on a light. We didn’t intend to do that. It was unforced, accidental.” At first, he was the teacher. He taught her about color, texture and clothes. Manuel showed her the difference between fashionable and trendy. He picked out an English riding jacket at a thrift store and told her, “These never go out of style.” Vintage clothing, ribbons, hats, all kinds of accessories – Mary Julia was decked out like never before. It was a new look on life and she couldn’t help but stare.

With a new wind beneath her wings, Mary Julia transferred to a four year college. Initially it was to get a psychology degree, but while at San Francisco State she took a creative writing class that changed her life. She read Neruda’s “Body of Woman” and was so moved, it drove her to tears. She’d found her calling in poetry.

Mary Julia felt reading to Manuel could change the dynamic in the studio – it would be her way of giving back. Turned out Manuel loved poetry, too. When she read the line from that Neruda poem, “To survive myself I forged you like a weapon,” it struck Manuel to the core. “He uses the figure as a metaphor, layered and complex, to communicate his feelings,” Mary Julia writes. This poem says that on so many levels.

Poetry became part of the nightly routine. Over the years, they’ve covered all the great Latin American and Spanish poets of the last century. Mary Julia started writing some of her own and would bring them in to read. “Manuel was the only person that ever believed in me. Others put me down. But he said, ‘You can write.'”

What he was hearing, though, was a woman who was see-sawing to the extremes of ups and downs. You see, Mary Julia had fallen in love with Manuel. She knew it, but was still married with children. He felt it in private, but denied it in public. He couldn’t give up his wandering ways and had gotten pretty good at lying. She sought to define their affection, almost seeking permission to love him. And like their feelings, she disguised her poetry to figure out the truth.

Mary Julia’s teacher told her about a tumultuous relationship between artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. Their love was deep, his fidelity was shallow. Frida painted herself alone, always questioning her desire to love him. Mary Julia took on Kahlo’s persona and began writing poems in the form of letters to “Diego.” The bond she writes about is obvious in its inferences.

Mary Julia completed her master’s degree in creative writing. She then taught at San Francisco State for a couple of years. Eventually, she felt she needed a day job, so she got a master’s in counseling psychology and opened her own private practice as a psychotherapist and hypnotherapist in Benicia.

NERI’S VISION

Manuel Neri’s world has always been visual. A dyslexic, he recently wrote in a note to Mary Julia, “I am in a room abandoned by language.” So he invented his own world through art – an evolutionary process that’s now consumed 57 years of his life.

Neri’s upbringing was very similar to Mary Julia’s. He’s the only son of Mexican immigrants born in 1930 in the tiny farm town of Sanger, California – a Hispanic community in the San Joaquin Valley full of field workers who all spoke Spanish. The Neris were Catholic, well educated, but had little money. Dad had a college degree, but couldn’t pursue a law career during those deeply prejudiced times. From an early age, it was clear that Manuel looked at the world differently. On Saturday afternoons while the rest of the kids were out playing, Neri used to get a few cents scraped together and go to the movie theatre. He would sit all afternoon and watch foreign films. He didn’t understand a word; he just loved how beautifully they were produced. Manuel was 14 when his dad died from tuberculosis. His mom moved him and his two sisters to the Bay Area. There Manuel found freedom in the isolation of nature. He would ride his bicycle all the way from Berkeley to Walnut Creek without seeing a soul; it was just back roads and walnut trees. Being alone in the country made him happy.

Neri’s introduction to art was a fluke. He took a ceramics workshop at San Francisco City College in 1950 to break up the monotony of his engineering classes. He was blown away by his professor, Roy Walker, and the power of creating. Walker introduced Neri to ceramicist Peter Voulkos and that was all it took. He followed Voulkos to Montana one summer to help him set up the Archie Bray Foundation. His art studies were interrupted when Neri was drafted and sent to Korea. When he returned two years later, something amazing was happening in San Francisco.

It was called the Beat Movement – artists, poets and jazz musicians sharing ideas and inspiration. The underground art scene in North Beach was edgy and full of attitude. 6 Gallery in the Marina District was the movement’s headquarters. Allen Ginsberg gave his first reading of Howl at the 6. Nobody was selling work, so that wasn’t the focus. There was no ownership of ideas. It was a very loose, very free and very stimulating time.

While New York and Europe were dominated by abstract expressionism, San Francisco was onto something else. The Bay Area figurative movement blended the contemporary with the classic. David Park, Richard Diebenkorn, Nathan Oliveira, Paul Wonner, Elmer Bischoff and James Weeks rejected total abstraction and began incorporating elements of realism like the human figure. Manuel Neri and his future wife, Joan Brown, were part of the second generation of this movement.

In the mid-to-late 1950’s, Manuel took classes at various California arts colleges, where he found the line between student and teacher was beautifully blurred. Diebenkorn, Oliveira and Bischoff all taught him, and they learned from each other at the same time. The group helped Manuel transition out of ceramics and into painting. Neri liked the immediacy of the brush, but quickly found his canvases drowning in thickness. It was then that he found his artistic identity as a sculptor who loved to paint. Over the next several years, he used all sorts of materials: sculpting magnesite and adding to plaster cardboard, wood, rags, eucalyptus sticks and anything else cheap that he could find. Borrowing a jazz term, artists of the era called this type of experimentation “funk.” Everything from house paint to garbage had the potential to be transformed into art.

He dedicated himself to the human figure. Even back then, his sculptures were life-sized and loaded with color. It was clear he had talent and vision. Many tried to push him to New York, but he felt it would be a long time before the figure made a comeback on the east coast. He was right, but also ridiculed, for his decision. He spent the next couple decades virtually ignored by critics and collectors outside San Francisco. During that time, Manuel shaped and reshaped his ideas. He added and subtracted paint to “finished” sculptures and would sometimes rework the same piece for up to 12 years.

It was teaching that helped him and many other artists pay the bills while they honed their skills. After a stint at the California School of Fine Arts, Neri took a faculty job at U-C Davis. For the next 25 years, he worked alongside Wayne Thiebaud, Robert Arneson and William T. Wiley.

The union of Mary Julia and Manuel in 1972, changed both their lives, but the biggest benefactor was the art. Neri started with a series of drawings of Mary Julia. He also began using steel rebar and Styrofoam, wrapped with burlap, as an armature for his plaster sculptures. It expanded the range of possibilities for the figures. The life-sized plasters suddenly beamed with personality as they took on Mary Julia’s gestures and proportions. Her poses were instrumental to the advance of Neri’s work. They were unconventional and Neri refused to apologize for that in his work. With Mary Julia as the model, Manuel solidified his vision of the figure, the fragment and the head. He started selling. He got shows and attention. Everything just fell into place.

Today his art sells for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Even though Manuel has occasionally used other women as models during the last three decades, his sculptures and drawings always end up looking like Mary Julia. She considers herself the vehicle for Manuel’s expression and refuses to see herself in the art, viewing it in the third person. Perhaps that’s because he’s used her as a model for all kinds of commissions, even using her to pose for a series of sculptures about the crucifixion.

During an exhibition called The Re-Making of Mary Julia at 80 Langton Street, the artist allowed the public to view the transformation of gesture and poses over a ten-day period. Each night when the gallery closed, Manuel and Mary Julia would work. Eight sculptures evolved during the midnight hours, leading to different personal experiences by each morning light.

Neri continues to work in plaster, but has long since moved on to bronze, marble and anything and everything in between. His constant search for a better understanding of the figure led him to Carrara, Italy. He fell in love with its history and relationship with the old masters. Neri bought an apartment just a block from where Michelangelo used to live and now spends part of the year in Italy. He uses marble from the same quarry where Michelangelo got his stone. Despite its weight and smoothness, Neri has found a way to chop, carve and chisel it into his familiarly rough and fragmented study of humanity.

Hackett Freedman Gallery Director Francis Mill says, “He’s always true to the material. You never forget what the material is. You never forget where it comes from, how it originated. You see his influences of classical line and classical form in passages in the figures. But then immediately it’s juxtaposed with the impact of the material, the roughness of the plaster, the excavated and carved surface of marble – it creates a very dynamic experience of the material.”

CLASSIC COMPARISONS

Art is a mechanism, a timeless touchstone that allows us to understand its creator and its era. Neri’s work on the female figure has often been compared to Rodin, Giacometti and Degas.

Rodin confronted distress and moral weakness as well as passion and beauty through his work with model and mistress Camille Claudel. Both Rodin and Neri understand the poetic possibilities of the fragment. Like Rodin, Degas worked around the turn of the19th Century. He is widely known as the master of drawing the human figure in motion. Neri’s posturing and gesturing shares that suggestion of interrupted or imminent movement. Surrealist painter and sculptor Alberto Giacometti, meantime, created during and after WWII. His work is a testament to isolation – the cut-off from family and loss of community as a result of the war. Neri’s works in structure and emotion share that fragility. Similar to those great artists, Neri’s body of work is like a mirror, allowing us access into his subconscious.

Movements come and go, but the legacy and longevity of the creative process from the beat movement still resonates today. Neri is a pioneer, the only sculptor in the Bay Area Figurative Movement. His body of work deserves to be acknowledged. On November 1, Neri received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Sculpture Center at the Tribeca Rooftop in New York. The honor is for his direct contribution to the advancement of the medium of sculpture. Neri is the 16th sculptor to receive this prestigious award, joining artists like Robert Rauschenberg, Magdalena Abakanowicz, Mark di Suvero and others.

George Neubert sits on the board of the ISC and was the curator for Neri’s first retrospective in Oakland in 1976. “It’s nice that the ISC can acknowledge a legend like Manuel when he’s living,” Neubert says. “And it’s nice to pay tribute to an artist who is not a mainstream East Coast, New York guy. That’s one of the things the ISC does very well.” The significance of this award really opens the international door shedding light on the importance of this period in American art.

http://farm1.static.flickr.com/98/220744181_e795bc5ebe.jpg?v=0The creative collaboration between Manuel Neri and Mary Julia Klimenko is the perfect blend between visual and verbal language. Where they found that harmony, others have failed miserably. Rodin’s muse was half his age and ended up in an insane asylum. Picasso had several models; none stayed around long. He slept with most of them because “knowing them inside and out” helped his art – at least that’s what he told his wife. Edie Sedgwick became Andy Warhol’s, then Bob Dylan’s muse in the 1960’s. Both men were highly productive with her by their side, however she spiraled downward into a drug induced depression and died young.

There are few, if any, artist/muse combinations that have produced such an extensive and evolving body of work as Manuel Neri and Mary Julia Klimenko. Their road to art immortality has been bumpy, but consistent. They’ve seen and felt every emotion possible in that old church – a union of pleasure, pain and productivity. The art and poetry spawned from this important relationship are permanent testaments to the glory of love that will be talked about for centuries to come. “I want to die when he does,” Mary Julia says. “Because he’ll take half my heart, and I don’t think a woman can live with half a heart.”

Written by: Ben Bamsey

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