New York

John Ahearn

The New Museum Windows

Applebroog’s window-trimmings transform the spectator into a voyeur, but John Ahearn’s cast plaster and painted busts make the observer feel she is being unduly ogled, because these faces look out of the window to give deep eye-contact. Fourteenth Street in Manhattan (locus of The New Museum windows) is the official border between regular Manhattan and “Downtown,” and like Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez, it’s the site of a thriving bordertown industry. Street vendors, con men, wig saleswomen, creators of improbable floral arrangements dot the boulevard, simply using the thoroughfare as an open-air emporium. Amid this hurly-burly (Duchamp used to live two avenues west, over what is now Casa Moneo, purveyor of Hispanic foodstuffs) are The New Museum windows, with Ahearn’s disembodied heads (is it true they tried to resuscitate Nostradamus this way? I saw a movie once where he appeared as a talking head) looking on dispassionately.

Ahearn’s casts do seem to live in the Twilight Zone. They’re obviously of actual people and have the same relation to living things that a mannequin does; I always experience a grotesque instant when I think they’re alive, that, painted these peculiar fleshlike hues, they are extras from Dawn of the Dead. But is this chill any different from the programmed eeriness of Mme. Tussaud’s?

Yes, a great deal different. Mme.Tussaud’s and other such waxwork museums are forms of celebrity sweepstakes, exhibitors of likenesses of people you’d like to meet but most likely won’t because they’re too dead or too famous for your social circle. Ahearn’s casts are of ordinary people with run-of-the-mill facial expressions, instead of the forced superiority on the faces at Tussaud’s. So now he seems akin to George Segal, Duane Hanson, and John de Andrea, right? Not quite. Segal’s ghostlike casts are of the existential everyperson, more phantom than individuated. Hanson’s and de Andrea’s work play off the frisson of hyper-verisimilitude. They share a Disneyland ethos—hyperrealism is stranger than truth—and it’s often successful. Ahearn is different.

There’s not a lot of elegance to his work, but elegance isn’t everything. What’s great about the casts is that they have a quick, impromptu feel. Like sketches. They can be hung on a wall. Garishly painted in colors that are close to, but not quite, lifelike they have the compelling air of faces perhaps a little too made-up. They’re a little like sentinels, guardians of Fourteenth Street, seeing everything, but saying nothing. Ahearn’s exercises in verist sculpture insinuate their way into your private space, and they are, impassively, like the Dawn of the Dead zombies: you can’t kill them because they’re not alive, you can’t get rid of them because they won’t go away.

Carrie Rickey