New York

John Ahearn

877 Intervale Avenue

John Ahearn was not trained in sculpture. Schooled in painting, he switched to filmmaking; working on monster movies he became involved in designing the creatures’ faces, and also in casting his actors’ faces as an intermediate stage in the preparation of makeup. He enjoyed the process of sculpture-making more than filmmaking, and moulded his first series of public castings in the South Bronx in the prominent display window of the Fashion Moda gallery. Garish painting and bravura expressions reveal the theatricalized, carnival atmosphere of these early sessions. In time, the work fine-tuned itself away from stylization. As he has gained in sculptural fluency, Ahearn, in his pragmatic, no-frills manner, has taken a position in a community he has learned to love. On commission from the Borough of the Bronx, and assisted by a local statuary company, Ahearn and fellow-artist Rigoberto Torres have completed a large-scale, life-sized relief mural of neighborhood personalities called We Are Family. (A second piece, Double Dutch, has been put up nearby.)

These fiberglass casts, Ahearn’s first attempts at full-figure representation, are adapted to weather conditions of outdoor display. The psychoshock his subjects underwent while being cast (their fear of momentarily smothering) confirmed that the artist had to establish a trust and intimacy far beyond any division in class, race, age, sex, neighborhood, habit, etc. He spent a lot of time calming his subjects. carefully priming them (“Part of the trick is to have a pleasant-thought-in-mind look on the face.” he says) before the casting. What Ahearn is aiming at with his casts is a pizzazz of universal human energy together with the particularity of the human subject. The work is not psychological or abstract, but dramatic, condensed, and eruptive, like a snapshot. Casting takes the image of a physical presence at the moment when the intrinsic, gestural self is revealed.

The hereditary poor put more imagination into the way they look, act, and move than do those who scatter their culture into broader environments, be it above their sofas or on their front lawns. Working with people who have invested most of their creativity in a highly tuned personal look is comparable to working with fashion models. These works are human art trouvé, captured by one of the most time-honored and veristic of representational means—casting from life. The automatic appeal of portraiture is used in a social context; through ongoing interaction with the community Ahearn really gets to know the people in it, so that beauty moves from the exterior “hot” look of a person to the knowing inner beauty of friends. Ahearn’s work commemorates the human species in trophies of dignity and grace. casts for those who know who they are and how they want to look.

Ahearn had all the potential last year to be anointed as the good white artist bringing ethnic messages from the exotic “efnick” South Bronx. It was a crossroads in his career. But he proved he wasn’t an art-world busybody cashing in on his native mementoes. In spite of the pressures of success he dared to search and please himself: his interest, devotion, and intention verify that he would rather continue his community interaction and unharassed art activity than capitalize on the phenomenal chicness of his subject matter as registered last season by the art world.

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