A Conversation with Manuel Neri

MN: Before we talk specifically about what makes your sculpture so interesting and in some ways unique, could you explain why have you have chosen clay?

Camille Applying PatinaCV: Clay is really not my primary material. I use whatever surrounds me, materials that are close to me both literally and figuratively. I have hundreds of drawings. I draw more than I do any other art form. Once I begin, it's nearly impossible to stop. Painting and sculpture I can more easily disengage from, for, let's say a green tea break. The drawings are intricate, maze-like stream of consciousness black and white ink drawings. I stay up all night without feeling time pass, but then the rising sun gives away the time. I lose a lot of sleep this way, I do not set out to translate an idea into an image. I start drawing and keep going until the page is full. In the end, I am surprised by the myriad of forms, shapes and characters (human and beast-like) that have appeared. I have also worked with animal bone to make sculpture and sometimes I just sing - whatever comes to me in a moment. A melody introduces itself, then words. On "song days" I might not sculpt or draw, at all. As for ceramics, I can say only that my father works with clay and it was around in abundance, Also, it is the earth's elastic, the mother's helper. It's fertile… it feels good in my hands.

MN: Your - surface treatments intrigue me. They are rich and layered. They have a child-like appeal and a weathered quality that connotes both innocence and age. And the engravings seem to contain a secret code, A personal message. I like that. They seem impossible to decipher, but I keep trying regardless. That's what holds my interest.

CV: Recently, my mother handed me a bag full of my babyhood drawings that she had kept, and guess what I discovered... I have been scribbling the same images since I was a tiny baby. Well, actually, I was a fairly large baby.

MN: (Laughs) What happy surprise that must have been.

CV: Yes. It makes me feel as if each artist is assigned to works that already exist... somewhere... and it is his or her simple duty to bring those works forth into the physical world.. I'm glad I wasn't assigned to paint photo-realism.

MN: This seems much more fun.

CV: Absolutely.

MN: Your figures are all similar. Even their faces.

Burning PatinaCV: Yes. As their most simple selves, they are alike. People together are like the ocean's coral. Each of us is a single polyp in a unified whole. We are made unique through color, texture, weathering, form. Our experiences leave an imprint on us, but our response to these experiences and their resulting decoration also define us. But behind all that, we are basically the same. The faces don't matter, but gesture is important.

MN: Oh, yes, Yet, if people are, as you say, basically the same beneath the outer imprint of experience, why do you sculpt primarily women?

CV: The female serves as a blank canvas for my own expression because I'm female. I can more easily express through them the imprints that have shaped me.

MN: Why not men?

CV: Men are ugly.

MN: Really? (both laugh).

CV: No. Women are familiar to me. I'm taking my time. I've made a few men, but I'm holding them hostage in the studio for now. Well, actually Green is a man, but he's a maquette.

MN: Tell me about this… little green man.

CV: Well, he's holding a tree as if it were a baby, but he himself is rather like a child; he's dwarfed by the large wooden bench he's sitting on. It's green in a couple of ways.

MN: What ways?

CV: He's colored green.

MN: Yes, I see that. But what other ways?

CV: (Laughing) Well, he's young and naive, which is both wonderful in its innocence and troublesome in its recklessness.

MN: Recklessness and innocence. These things seem to inspire your own art; much of it retains childhood experiences.

CV: Yes, definitely.

MN: Are there other sources of inspiration for your art?

Camille Applying PatinaCV: The ocean tends to take in garbage and spit it out as impossibly beautiful art. A piece of styrofoam becomes a tiny replica of our cratered moon, a veritable universe of simplicity and balance. How does the sea manage this Miracle? I would dry up without the inspiration that the ocean exhales. It is a gift as vital as breath, as is our whole Earth. Also, my parents engaged my imagination. My mom was a performer (a wonderful ballerina) and Peter an artist and teacher. When I was 11, and witnessing a gnome in the Dutch woods, Peter just stood and stared at her with me. He didn't say "Camille, that is tree stump," and when I squealed, "look at her tail!" He didn't say, "that is a protruding branch, and. you my dear, are a nut."

MN: What you say about the sea is interesting. But what washes up on the shore is just that - forms, colors, textures, harmonies and resonances. Where do the messages you embed in your pieces fit in?

CV: Some "art" smacks you across the face with its message. I don't have to intellectualize a piece to receive its message. Every little treasure on Earth has ceaseless messages wrapped in mystery. When I first saw a flower in bloom, I didn't say "ah, such openness allows one's essence, one's particular scent to be taken in. Ah, such openness allows the light in. It's the only way to grow. This is a tiny cosmos." No, I stood there receiving the flower's quiet medicine, and that was enough.

MN: When I was recently in Florence, I saw an ancient Etruscan seated figure of a woman that had little cavities in her body and things embedded in her. Little secrets, personal treasures. Your work reminds me of this piece. It's an ancient idea, this notion you're using.

CV: Wow. I didn't know that. -That's a nice feeling.

MN: One of the things, as I said, that impresses me about your work is the surface scoring. Have you considered perhaps pushing that element further Maybe covering large areas of the figure with those drawings of yours, like patches or tattoos, almost creeping over the figure and overtaking her...

CV: ... starting to cover her face, enveloping her...

MN: Yes.

CV: Sounds creepy. Well, I actually did that with GardenHer. I drew large patchy areas or her, using an indelible ink pen. I ended up washing it off. You can't see it, but it's still there, in the way that experiences, though invisible on the Surface of a persons skin, are still there.

MN: You've been exploring other media besides clay. What is the story behind that delightful turkey-bone sculpture you gave me? By the way, I made a setting for that piece.

Burning PatinaCV: Then that's our first collaboration! Yes, that turkey-bone sculpture was a first for me. I hadn't eaten meat for 18 years, but then one night after Thanksgiving dinner at my family's house, after everyone had gone to sleep, I raided the refrigerator and began to pick at the leftover turkey. As I did, I began noticing the incredible intricacy of the bones, and I realized the wholeness of each part... each was its own little sculpture connecting to form the bird. I spent the entire night digging in the carcass, peeling the skin from the bones, rooting around in the body. The deeper I dug, the more I felt a union with this animal, and my revulsion toward the carcass eventually dissolved. The sculpture I made with those bones is, to me, the same as the ink drawings. Visually they are very different, but I know the connection. It's hard for me to articulate the similarities, but know what the two share. It's similar to the clay sculptures that contain a secret - a lady that's really a tree, or a horse that's full of childhood ashes. There are no overt similarities, but the connection between them seems obvious. I usually wrap only the basic form, first removing any detail from its surface. Detail, if any, is added in the end. Today I cut all the appendages off a giant stuffed toucan… beak, wings, feet, etc... and covered him with clay. He looks like a prehistoric, yet undiscovered cave-dwelling sea-beast… or a rabbit, maybe? Hey, maybe I'll hang him from the ceiling with fishing line, so he flies like a bird. We'll see.

MN: Is the majority of your work representational?

CV: No, I am most comfortable working in the abstract, I began ceramics working with a series of unrecognizable forms. An egg carton wrapped in a slab of clay is abstract yet strangely familiar. I like this dynamic. These figures are only a portion of what I do, but they are important. I Feel my direction shifting. New elements are coming into play (even with the "ladies") like the wool on Ethiop-l-Am's head. I am excited to see what is to become.  Tonight, I feel like wrapping this whole ugly world from end to end with our beautiful Earth's clay.

MN: That's great. It's personal. I like the mystery. I like the idea of those secret identities. Can you explain what you hope to achieve in the process of creating these forms?

CV: While I'm working, my only hope is that the piece is a reverent exchange for the moment of its conception. A sufficient "Thank you."

MN: And are they sufficient?

CV: I'm not the one to ask...