"It's almost like an exquisite corpse," sculptor Ruby Neri says of a figure in her current show at David Kordansky Gallery, referring to the art and writing exercise of creating one part of a work and then passing it on to someone else to add to it, and again and again.
The figure is a girl, about as tall as a real girl would be, with scrawny plaster legs, a tiny little plaster butt and a thrown ceramic torso. Her breasts are painted on, not sculpted; they're imperfect orange circles with black dots for nipples. Her arms, which look like handles on a ceramic vase, bend behind her neck, and bangs and shoulder-length hair frame a wonkily realistic face that, in Neri's words, looks like it was made by "some community college student." Splatters and bursts of acrylic paint and washes of lime green, orange and purple spray paint interrupt the white and flesh-colored clay. "I wanted it to have a street edge, like some kid broke in with a spray can," says Neri, "or like I'm defacing these sculptures. It's just fun."
Neri's show, simply called "Sculpture" and up through Aug. 18, consists of just figures, about 15 of them. There's also a room of the Hammer's "Made in L.A." show right now, where a posse of Neri's busts and figures stand in a line. Each one is a little different, but each is a kind of "exquisite corpse," often with a plaster bottom that transitions to a thrown ceramic middle -- "It's really awkward," Neri says of the transition -- and then to a hand-sculpted face. The face might be only loosely representational, like the one that's plate-shaped with holes for eyes, or it might be passably realistic. You can see Neri's fingerprints on the figures' necks, backs or foreheads. "It leaves the immediacy," she says.
This is probably the most "immediate" work Neri has done since she moved down from the Bay Area in the mid-'90s, studied at UCLA and began exhibiting in this city. It's more immediate than the anatomically convincing Fiberglas lioness she finished in 1999, and more so than the brightly colored, primitively geometric figures and paintings she showed at Kordansky's space three years ago. But before any of that, she worked in one of the most immediate modes there is.
If you Google Neri, the first thing you'll discover is that she used to be a tagger known as REM, short for Reminisce. She was an original member of the Mission School in San Francisco, a group of San Francisco Art Institute undergrads who started tagging streets and painting "lowbrow" cartoonish murals. Barry McGee and Margaret Kilgallen also were part of the group, which acquired the name "Mission School" retroactively, when writer Glen Helfand used the term in a 2002 article. Neri, or REM, became known for the monochromatic, running horses she illicitly painted.
Next, you likely will discover that Neri is the daughter of Manuel Neri, who studied with artists from the Bay Area Figurative School and combined a classical approach to figure sculpture with an expressive, painterly sensibility. In a way, his daughter does that, too. In trying to describe Ruby Neri's work, with its ties to lowbrow, highbrow and history, reviewers always dance around the word "tradition": Does she buck it? Does she embrace it?
"I don't find my relationship to tradition to be a battle in any way," says Neri. She recalls trying to define what she does now in relation to what she did in San Francisco. "How the hell could I ever bridge that?" But there are continuities. "The romantic idea of being taken away is still there in my work," she says, and "if anything, it's the immediacy of the materials that's always been important."
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Then, like now, she could work right away without prepping, take spray paint to the street or start shaping clay.
"It's about the art," she says, meaning this in the "getting down and dirty," hands-on way, not the heady "art about art" way.
"Defies categorization" is something curators and critics like to say when art is presumably so avant-garde it's hard to talk about. But "unconcerned with categorization" seems like a good descriptor for Neri's art. Certainly, you could look at that great, blobby bust in the Kordansky show, the one that has Neri's name written across its neck, and think of archaic Greek heads and vessels, about Oceanic art or turn-of-the-century Primitivists like Gaugin and Paul Klee. Or you could think of graffiti. Or you could just enjoy how funny and free it looks, and you wouldn't be missing a thing.