AT FIRST glance, sculptor Manuel Neri's new show at Middendorf/Lane looks like a roomful of life-size plaster figures by George Segal--after they'd been savaged with an ax and a bucket of paint.
But closer scrutiny reveals a deliberate art that is Neri's own--provocative and loaded with ambiguity. Are these standing female nudes meant to represent life or death? Youth or old age? Serenity or human torment? Is this a classical artist or an abstract expressionist? The answer to all of the above is "yes," resulting in the panoply of paradox that propels Neri's art.
And paradox is everywhere. "Untitled Armless Figure," for example, is full of life, its rounded, vigorous stance unmistakably that of a vital, proud young woman. Yet it dawns gradually upon the viewer that the arms--though thrust upwards--have been lopped off, the body savaged, the feet in an advanced state of decay. This sculpture, which recalls an ancient ruin, cannot be "about" a live figure, yet in the end it still seems timeless, alive, triumphant over the battering it has suffered.
Neri's standing figures are sculptural in the way some paintings are painterly. He applies the wet plaster with a sense of gusto that is the sculptural equivalent of abstract expressionist brushstroking. Now 52, this California-born artist was, in fact, trained in the heyday of abstract expressionism, under the influence of the Bay Area Figurative School--artists who sought to recombine figuration with the abstract expressionist style. Most were painters.
A final ambiguity of this show is in the medium. Though all these figures seem to be made of plaster, all but one are cast in bronze and then painted to retain the look of plaster--an unusual switch. Recently, Neri has also taken up carving in marble. Though honored with Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts grants, this show--which just closed at Charles Cowles Gallery in New York--is Neri's first on the East Coast. It continues at 2009 Columbia Rd. NW through Feb. 26, and is open Tuesdays through Fridays 11 to 6, Saturdays 11 to 5. A Range of Landscapes
"Landscape: A Range of Vision" is a somewhat overblown title for the current offering at Addison/Ripley Gallery, though there are enough good things to make a visit worthwhile if you happen to be in the neighborhood.
Ruth Bolduan is the most impressive new talent, with surging landscapes vigorously rendered in the shrill colors of the German expressionists. Though her efforts are not always successful, these works, combined with those she is showing in the new-talent show now at WPA, constitute an impressive debut. John Morrell, who recently soloed at Stoneman Gallery, seems to have gained new authority in a large, moody painting entitled "Salt Marsh," though a sense of tentativeness still haunts his work.
Among the familiar names, Alice Acheson, now in her eighties, shows great strength in a watercolor of Lake Leman in Switzerland, while Hilda Thorpe and Lea Feinstein make respectively worthy and amusing contributions. The show continues through Feb. 12 at 9 Hillyer Court NW--an alley behind the Phillips Collection. Hours are 11 to 5, Tuesdays through Saturdays. The Local Landscape
"Washington Landscape Paintings" are also the subject under investigation at Zenith Gallery, 1441 Rhode Island Ave. NW. James Sundquist's new lithograph, "DC II," featuring the Jefferson Memorial afloat on a grid, is his best entry as well as the most interesting item on view. Michael Francis' landscape paintings prove once again--as did his recent show at Hull Gallery--that his cityscapes are far more interesting.
Among the newcomers, Gary Goldberg's "Blue House" is especially strong, as are Laurie Gay's frosty pastel landscapes. Apart from "Out of the Forest," master painter Reginald Pollack does not seem to be in top form here. This show closes Feb. 26, and is open Tuesdays through Saturdays, noon to 6.