Among the artists who have driven the renewed interest in ceramics over the last decade, Ruby Neri stands out for synthesizing defining movements in West Coast sculpture. Her vessels—many of which challenge notions about the limitations of scale and scope when working in clay—depict powerful, fully embodied women fused with their physical and psychospiritual surroundings. An installation of recent ceramic sculptures by the Los Angeles-based artist in David Kordansky Gallery’s new outdoor courtyard illuminates novel readings of their formal, narrative, and art historical resonances alike.
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Ruby Neri: Outside allows viewers to connect to the sculptures’ forthright, lively, and often humorous content in ways that fully honor their vitality and vibrant glazing. The three works on view vary in size and composition; they also propose three distinct relationships with the traditional vessel.
In the case of the largest work, Untitled (2019), the only thing that might be said to function as a vessel in the usual sense is the pedestal-like form on which the life-sized figure appears to sit or lay. Neri has glazed this lower portion of the sculpture so that its 360-degree scene alludes directly to landscape: bucolic white flowers crop up from a yellow-green field and encircle a supine woman who might be seen as sleeping if not for her open eyes, which stare back at the viewer with a mixture of shock and curiosity.
But it is the three-dimensional tableau of the work’s upper half that dominates its composition and contains its greatest surprises. As a sculptural statement, it is marked by bravado and action; as a representation of the complexities of motherhood, it is perhaps even more far-reaching. “It’s a visceral, personal thing,” Neri remarks. “I originally imagined the vertical figures as a handle for a basket, but their proportions transformed them into something else, and it’s rather phallic. But then they’re also like fallopian tubes. The reclining woman has a hole in her stomach and it’s as if she’s being taken over by her children. I feel like I have ideas beforehand—about the female body—but they’re altered in the finished product.” For Neri, the clay, as well as the figures that arise in and from it, have a life of their own: gendered connotations multiply and the personal becomes broadly archetypal, overflowing with feminine and masculine energies alike. All of this comes into even clearer focus when the work is displayed outdoors, where changing ambient conditions set the stage for an ever-shifting play of light and shadow.
Illumination and darkness have psychospiritual as well as physical manifestations. The second largest sculpture, Untitled (pregnant women) (2020), offers a charged, concentrated take on this dynamic that also demonstrates Neri’s expanded use of color in her glazed surfaces. While an array of female figures—all thickly outlined in black—encircle a central vessel, the most notably dimensional aspect of the sculpture is its undulating, fleshy sense of relief. The bodies of the women give the work a constantly shifting silhouette that brims with heightened contrasts and energy; in one section, a cascade of hearts, along with a circular shape that reads alternately as an eye or a breast, opens up a series of orifices and unexpected depths—rather than a false bottom, this vessel has false sides.
Despite its effusive overall presentation and cheerful, primary coloration, Untitled (pregnant women) had a complicated genesis. “I was so furious about what was happening to abortion rights last year,” Neri describes, “and this piece started from that dark place.” Referring to the small figures emerging directly from a larger one’s stomach, she goes on to observe that, “It’s anatomically wrong. The babies are coming out of her like they would during a caesarean. But they look joyous. It’s an image of babies doing whatever they want to do.” When it comes to the object’s color, meanwhile, she notes that the less-figurative additions like the hearts allow her to bring a broader palette. “I'm using a different kiln now too, which is causing the glazes to react in a more complex way, and so the colors tend to be richer and darker.”
Neri’s work, across all media, has always had a strong painterly component. This makes its presence outdoors, in the landscape, particularly powerful. As someone who was first recognized for her street art contributions to what became known as the Mission School in early-1990s San Francisco, she is no stranger to responding to the world around her. Situating her new sculpture outside is not an act of expressive punctuation—though her glazes, applied with an airbrush, recall graffiti gestures—nor merely an attempt to claim space, but a way of giving subtleties of mark-making, texture, and materiality room to breathe.
This emphasis on the immediacy of the senses does not preclude the new sculptures from calling to mind an idiosyncratic group of art historical resonances—often the products of unorthodox characters outside the traditional canon. These include objects by West Coast ceramics forebears like Viola Frey and Peter Voulkos who experimented with large, expressive forms, as well as the landscape-oriented, immersive figures of Niki de Saint Phalle. But there are also personal touchstones.
When it comes to the vessel-with-lid Woman with Flowers (2019), Neri mentions, “This piece is like a strange memory of Diego Rivera’s The Flower Carrier (1935), which I grew up looking at in the collection of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. There’s something about the idea of a person carrying an immense load of flowers that just has its own power.” In the case of Neri’s sculpture, the figure not only carries the flowers, but appears to support and contain unstoppable natural forces; her inner and outer strength allow her to radiate a concretized image of nature into the area above her, suggesting that the personal spaces of the body and psyche are fused, in ways that can never be entirely known to the outside world.
In 2018, Ruby Neri (b. 1970, San Francisco) was the subject of a two-person exhibition, Alicia McCarthy and Ruby Neri / MATRIX 270, at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA), Berkeley, California. Recent and forthcoming group shows include The Flames: The Living Art of Ceramics, Musée d’Art Moderne de Paris (2021); New Time: Art and Feminism in the 21st Century, BAMPFA, Berkeley, California (2021); The Domestic Plane: New Perspectives on Tabletop Art Objects, Objects Like Us, Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, Ridgefield, Connecticut (2018); From Funk to Punk, Left Coast Ceramics, Everson Museum of Art, Syracuse, New York (2017); Fertile Ground: Art and Community in California, Oakland Museum of California and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (2014); Energy That is All Around: Mission School, Grey Art Gallery, New York University, New York (2014); Busted, High Line, New York (2013); and Made in L.A. 2012, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles (2012). Her work is in the public collections of the Brooklyn Museum, New York; BAMPFA, Berkeley, California; and Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. Neri lives and works in Los Angeles.
Above: Ruby Neri and preparators installing in the David Kordansky Gallery courtyard, January 2021
Individual photography of Untitled (pregnant women) and Woman with Flowers by Jeff McLane
Title image by Elon Schoenholz
Videography by Tony Ung