Sculpted Poems, Irradiated Trees

An exhibit that looks at the collaboration between figurative sculptor Manuel Neri and his muse, Mary Julia, and another focusing on the oldest trees on Earth.

Delphinus from the series Diamond Nights (Courtesy of Corden | Potts Gallery)

Standing next to La Palestra No. 6, a Manuel Neri sculpture that’s valued at $225,000, Mary Julia analyzes the artwork for a visitor. She’s talking animatedly about its dimensions, practically touching its leg and chest in a scene that could be straight from a Woody Allen dramedy. If this were a scripted scene, the gallery’s guards would be rushing over to remind Julia how important Neri is, and to implore of her, “Madame! No grabbing the art!”

But Julia is the art. She’s the model for La Palestra No. 6, which is a featured piece at the Hackett | Mill gallery exhibit,”BRONZE: Recent Works by Manuel Neri.” And if anyone knows Neri well — and has the slack to do whatever she wants —it’s Julia, who was Neri’s main model for 40 years.

“I wanted to be in his studio,” Julia tells SF Weekly on the opening night of the exhibit. “I’ve always been in awe at what he does — and how he does it.”

Neri is one of the Bay Area’s most important living artists. He was at the center of the Bay Area Figurative Movement, which in the 1950s and 1960s produced seminal artwork by Richard Diebenkorn, Wayne Thiebaud, Elmer Bischoff, and others, Neri among them. Whether working in bronze or marble or plaster, and whether working at his studio in Benicia, Calif., or in Carrara, Italy, Neri interprets the female form — interprets Julia’s form — in innovative ways.

Some works at Hackett | Mill like modern jazz pieces: fragmentary and minimal but still full of verve and dynamism. Other works are like wild orchestrations, with deep textures and full body parts on display, and a panoramic perspective that connects the figure to a wall that elongates the shape.

Juana - Bronze Maquette (Cast 2/4), by Manuel Neri (Courtesy of Hackett|Mill)
Juana – Bronze Maquette (Cast 2/4), by Manuel Neri (Courtesy of Hackett | Mill)

 

The pieces in “BRONZE” are all reworkings of earlier sculptures. Neri refinished them with a patina that accentuates their sculpting, which is rough and jagged in places where Neri layered them with his hands before using his tool’s hard edges.

“The patina allows his hand to be seen,” Julia says. “When your plaster first sets up, it’s wet and loose. You can see how he’s throwing it on. And you can see here where it’s starting to dry, he gets a different type of texture.”

Neri has been honored with a slew of honors, including a Guggenheim Fellowship and the International Sculpture Center’s Lifetime Achievement in Contemporary Sculpture Award. Now 86, Neri didn’t attend the opening night of “BRONZE.” Julia says he’s been much less active in the past two years, while Hackett | Mill says that a cold prevented his attendance.

Either way, Neri is still making art that is highly valued — and highly valuable. Every major American art museum, including SFMOMA, has at least one work by Manuel Neri, and where there’s Neri, there’s usually Julia. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has a 1993 book by Neri that’s accompanied by Julia’s poems. Julia, who has a master’s in creative writing from San Francisco State University, has been writing poetry for about as long as she’s known Neri. Their relationship — collaborative and intense, she says — is one way to understand Neri’s art, and the creative inspiration that he used to continue with his sculpture for decades. They kept pushing each other in new directions. Pushing, pushing, pushing — and seeing where their work went, even if it veered into territory that Julia describes as “contradictory.”

“You have a contradiction that, for 40 years, you can’t really resolve, so we just kept working,” Julia says. “I wrote poetry, and he made sculptures every day. There weren’t breaks of time where we weren’t doing it. For us, it was being locked in the studio, and doing what we did. I didn’t ask him what he was doing — he just did it, and I would hold a pose until I couldn’t hold it anymore, and fall down, and get back up.”

In talking about Neri, who is of Mexican-American descent, Julia says that words were everything to their partnership. “I would read him my poetry,” she says. “All the Latin American poets were his favorites. He loved poetry. He wanted me to read mine, but I couldn’t write fast enough, so I’d bring books of poetry with me. When I wasn’t in a pose, I would read poetry to him. After about 20 years, we realized that the work played off each other. Not on purpose. He never made a sculpture or drawing because of a poem. And I never wrote a poem because of a sculpture or drawing. But you get this collaboration just because you’re so close.”

Julia says the collaboration is over, and “BRONZE” is a chance to see how it ended.

“It was,” she says, “a nice, long run.”

In the middle of the night, in isolated forests and geographies where few other people are present, Beth Moon takes photographs of trees that are older than anyone alive on Earth. Moon traveled in the past few years to Namibia, Botswana, Italy, Great Britain, and parts of California and Utah to get just the right shot of these trees and the bright stars that loom overhead. The stars are poignant reminders of the symbiosis that happens between trees and earth’s atmosphere: Cosmic radiation helps the trees thrive, according to scientific studies that Moon cites for her new book, Ancient Skies, Ancient Trees, and for a new exhibit of her photos,”Beth Moon: Diamond Nights,” at San Francisco’s Corden | Potts Gallery.

In the new images in Atlas, Moon reveals a side of Earth that is majestic, awe-inspiring, and almost unbelievable, like a bristlecone pine tree in Inyo National Forest in California’s Eastern Sierras that might be more than 4,000 years old. Does this sort of raw, transcendent scene really exist? Yes. Moon considers ancient, undisturbed trees the way some trekkers see the Himalayas or astronauts see outer space: Visiting these areas is to witness firsthand a world that is prehistoric, almost pre-human.

People never appear in Moon’s visionary images. Only the trees. Only the stars. On her sojourns, Moon will sometimes camp for a few nights next to her subjects, which she’ll find through research and even word-of-mouth once she gets in the area.

Moon, a longtime resident of Novato who is temporarily living on the East Coast, took her first photos of trees in 1999, while living in London, and her photography has evolved into a passion that continues to spawn new series, and new ways of seeing the natural world.

“I feel like trees are the grandest, and most beautiful creations on the earth,” Moon says. “It’s hard to put into words. I’m speechless just thinking about it.”

“BRONZE: Recent Works by Manuel Neri” Through Dec. 16 at Hackett | Mill, 201 Post St., S.F. Free; 415-362-3377 or hackettmill.com.

“Beth Moon: Diamond Nights” Through Dec. 30 at Corden | Potts Gallery, 49 Geary St., S.F. Free; 415-781-0110or cordenpottsgallery.com. Moon will sign copies of Ancient Skies, Ancient Trees. at the exhibit’s opening reception, Thursday, Nov. 3, 5:30-7:30 p.m.

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