We, the ensemble members of Catalyst: A Theatre Think Tank, were tasked with openly reacting to the Manuel Neri sculpture exhibit adorning the outdoor spaces of the Manetti Shrem Museum. Our discussion explored Neri's sculptures themselves; Neri's quoted responses about the sculptures and his artistic process; outside critiques of the art; and how we believe the sculptures represent or misrepresent ourselves and the community. 

We asked ourselves questions including (but not limited to): What does this art mean to you? Do you see yourself in this art? Who are these sculptures for? Who are they representing? Can art be a barrier? Responses ranged widely, but our group concluded that Manuel Neri's sculptures lack proper intentionality, diversity and representation of peoples. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, Neri's sculptures display deeply misogynistic overtones, and the lack of representation in body diversity and racial identities reinforces barriers ingrained in greater society. 

As artists, we crafted physical and vocal pieces that reflect our discussion and personal processes with Manuel Neri's sculptures. Artists found themselves responding to a unique barrier not only that they face, but also felt these sculptures emulate in the community. Our music was intentionally selected to be a symbol of combatting the barriers we have highlighted in this video. Specifically, our choice of "A-flat" by Black Violin is meant to honor the legacy of violinist Elijah McClain, a victim of police brutality, who serves as yet another example of the intense and immediate need for racial justice in our country.

We hope that our responses stimulate conversation and clarity for the Manetti Shrem Museum. We do not mean to villainize the museum, but rather to keep them involved with the community of artists they desire to serve and represent. Moving forward, we raise these questions: What does this mean for Manetti Shrem? What art does Manetti Shrem desire to create a platform for? What can the Manetti Shrem Museum change so that the art they raise up may better raise up the diverse community they serve? Thank you for graciously listening to our thoughts and concerns. 

Three photos of actors posing in front of statues by Manuel Neri.
Screen shots from the video featuring from left to right: Sophie Brubaker, Tiffany Nwogu and Stephanie Nielsen.

 

The Power of Art to Inspire Questions and Conversation

 

For more than a year, the Manetti Shrem Museum has been proud to collaborate with Catalyst: A Theatre Think Tank (formerly Ground and Field Theatre Festival), an inspiring and creative space where world-class theater artists, passionate students and thoughtful audiences meet to foster important narratives as they move forward onto the national stage — all on the campus of UC Davis. Our newest collaboration, presented here, exemplifies the power of art, both visual and performing. 

The museum, in partnership with Catalyst’s co-directors, Professor Mindy Cooper and Lisa Quoresimo, presented students with the prompt of responding to the museum during the time of two pandemics: COVID-19 and racism. We celebrate this partnership and thank Professor Cooper for her recognition of the museum as "a space that welcomes both criticism and praise with equal measure, which makes for an incredible asset to the campus and inspires new ways of thinking for our students both onstage and off.”

Catalyst ensemble members chose to focus on the few works that visitors can still engage with during the museum’s closure — outdoor sculpture — and specifically the work of Mexican American artist and UC Davis Art Department founding faculty member Manuel Neri. According to Dr. Quoresimo, the students began devising this performance by asking questions like "What barriers have I faced to cultural institutions like the Manetti Shrem Museum? What points of access have I had to those institutions which were barriers to others, though invisible to me?" 

Through dance, movement and dialogue, students filmed critical responses to Neri’s work, illustrating that his sculptures are both beloved and troubling. This performance reminds us that art is most powerful when it inspires conversation and questions. We hope you’ll join the conversation, too.  Email your thoughts to manettishrem@ucdavis.edu

 

 

Curator Carolyn Kastner Reflects on the Work of Manuel Neri

 

While researching Manuel Neri’s art for the exhibition Gesture: The Human Figure After Abstraction, which opened at the Manetti Shrem Museum in January 2020, I thought quite a bit about visitor response to his work. Heralded by artists and art critics as one of the most important California artists of his generation, Neri also prompts harsh critiques from those who see his artistic technique as representing violent attacks on the female body. Where some see the immediacy of his abstract gestures, others interpret his approach as mutilating and crude. Neri himself professed a singular artistic goal: to contribute a personal and modern style to the history of figural sculpture, dominated since antiquity by the female nude. Beginning in the 1960s, Neri sought a place among modern sculptors such as Auguste Rodin, Marino Marini and Alberto Giacometti. In the 21st century, his legacy is contested. 

As an art historian, I think the context of Manuel Neri's style and material process are important to consider. He was a student at the California School of Fine Arts between 1956 and 1958, during the rise of the Bay Area Figurative Movement from abstraction. During that time, he moved away from fabricating human and animal figures from found materials such as paper, wire and twine, common to the San Francisco Beat aesthetic of funk. He began to sculpt fragmented and imperfect human bodies in the non-traditional material of plaster. This radical act added to the immediacy of the figures, which seem improvisational or unfinished. In fact, it was a strategic move by Neri to place the figures in the contemporary moment of their making in the 1960s, at about the time he joined UC Davis Art Department.

I welcome the Catalyst students' responses to Neri's bronze sculptures installed outside the museum. Their words echo many academic discussions over the years. Artists and art critics gathered to discuss these same figures at the 2018 Yale University Sculpture Forum. The video of this gathering begins with the words, “I have known Neri’s work for some time; it has always troubled me.”