Ruby Neri’s Los Angeles studio — a vast warehouse space with floor-to-ceiling windows and a bowstring truss roof — is on a desolate stretch of industrial buildings in Boyle Heights, on the fringes of the Los Angeles River. Flooded with natural light and furnished with weathered reclaimed-wood chairs and tables crafted by her father, the Bay Area sculptor Manuel Neri, the studio is teeming with her clay sculptures of cartoonish female nudes, which range from pint-size to five-feet tall.
In the early ’90s, Neri was a core member of the Mission School, a group of countercultural street artists in San Francisco’s Mission District that included Barry McGee and Margaret Kilgallen and was featured in the 2008 documentary “Beautiful Losers.” Using the tag name Reminisce, Neri sneaked onto train tracks and spray-painted galloping horses on the sides of cars and derelict buildings. “All my creative energy definitely spawned in San Francisco,” she told me recently, as we stood in her studio. When she moved to Los Angeles for graduate school in 1996, she began to make three-dimensional work, marking a critical shift in her decades-long practice, which she describes as an ongoing exploration of conflicting parts of herself. This month, seven of her 400- to 800-pound ceramic vessels — airbrushed with women embracing, dancing and arguing with each other, and tagged in spray paint with Neri’s name — will go on view at the David Kordansky Gallery in Los Angeles.
The sculptures in Neri’s latest body of work deal with “dominance and subordinance” in intimate relationships, she said.
“People have told me that these characters are intensely threatening or aggressively sexual,” Neri explained. “I don’t see them as hypersexual, though. They’re a fractured character dealing with hierarchies, power struggles.” The artist views each yellow-haired, pink-skinned figure — inspired both by women in her family and the blond bombshells depicted in Pop Art — as a facet of the same imagined character, which is in part informed by Neri’s own various identities as a mother, lover, daughter and maker. Barefoot and seated on one of her father’s solid timeworn chairs, Neri answered T’s Artist’s Questionnaire.
From left: “The pigmented color is actually underglaze, and then I put a clear coat of glaze on top to make it shiny and brighter,” the artist said. “I made a conscious effort to make the works feel emotive and personal.”; ““I’m really obsessed with yellow and pink,” Neri said. “Certain colors have an effect on my brain that’s satisfying.”
When you start a new piece, where do you begin? What’s the first step?
I don’t have a plan for what a piece is going to be. I have a general idea and I work in that direction, but I like to let the clay lead me there.
Everything is coil-built. So I start from the bottom, making a snail, going around and around. It’s repetitive work; I push and pull to make the forms. In a year, I’ll be 50, and I’ve started the most physically demanding work of my life. It’s definitely important to me that it’s a physical challenge. My paintings were always physical. Everything I do is a form of action or activity.
How do you know when you’re done?
There’s a definite end date. I don’t have any questions about that. I make the form, I put the white slip on it, and then I fire it. I never go over it again after I spray the glaze on. It’s a one-time deal.
What is your day like? How much do you sleep, and what’s your work schedule like?
It’s very rare that I sleep through the night. I’ve separated from my husband, so I have my daughter a week on, a week off. When I don’t have my daughter, I work like 15-hour days straight. I love to work.
From left: The artist outside her Los Angeles studio; Neri often returns to Veronese green, vermillion red and carmen red in her work.
Neri often returns to Veronese green, vermillion red and carmen red in her work.
What do you usually wear when you work?
I wear tank tops and leggings. Tight clothes.
What do you buy in bulk with the most frequency?
What’s the first piece of art you ever made?
I drew horses endlessly as a kid — and aerial views of land that I would own to herd horses. I also would take chunks of plaster from my dad’s studio and carve them. I remember making a tennis shoe and a knife. When I was 11, I nailed wood together, wrapped it with wire and splattered paint on it — and was like, “Ta-da!”
What’s your favourite artwork by somebody else?
I was pretty blown away by a crazy pink jar covered with little women that Viola Frey made. The forms were bizarre, like intestines. Her work is bananas. It was on view at the di Rosa Center for Contemporary Art in Napa. Simone Leigh’s “Brick House” piece on the High Line in New York City is also unbelievable. It’s so beautiful.
From left: Horses recur in Neri’s work. Pictured here is a watercolor illustration from her high school sketchbook; on a table that once stood in her father’s studio are an iPod with clay-coated earbuds and a memoir by Erica Dawn Lyle.
What music do you play when you’re making art?
I listen to a lot of Depeche Mode and Molly Nilsson. I love to listen to tapes and records. Sometimes I stream KALX, the U.C. Berkeley radio. It reminds me of home.
What’s the first work you ever sold? For how much?
I remember trying to sell something when I was an undergrad for like $1,200. It seemed outrageous. I was upset when the person didn’t end up buying it. It felt like a really big deal when Dean Valentine bought my sculpture after grad school — in a show at China Art Objects.
How many assistants do you have?
I have two people helping me once a week each. I definitely prefer making work myself, but it’s just not realistic. It was really difficult to figure out which tasks to assign that someone can spend a legitimate amount of time on. I finally realized that it helps if you find someone that you don’t have to train.
What’s your worst habit?
Smoking and drinking. I like Camel Lights. I have some obsessive-compulsive habits I could definitely get rid of. I’ve been slow to catch up to the healthy lifestyle. And too much texting. Too much phone use.
From left: In the early ’90s, Neri often spray-painted buildings and train cars with illustrations of horses. Here, a poster she made in graduate school; a dollhouse built by the artist’s father contains photo slides and sculptures by Neri's daughter.
What do you pay for rent?
Four thousand dollars.
What was the last thing that made you cry?
I cry pretty easily because I’m premenopausal. It’s really intense. Hormones are so crazy. I cry over the news a lot, especially hearing about shootings and kids getting hurt.
What’s the weirdest object in your studio?
My mom’s old cigarette butts. She used to smoke True Blues. It’s a cigarette that they don’t make anymore. But my whole life, growing up, she smoked True Blues.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
“Ruby Neri” is on view from May 11 through June 15, 2019, at David Kordansky Gallery, 5130 West Edgewood Place, Los Angeles.
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