New York

John Ahearn with Rigoberto Torres

Brooke Alexander

John Ahearn and his assistant/collaborator Rigoberto Torres are remarkable contemporary additions to a historical genre of humanistic naturalism. Ahearn presents the vulgar masses to the cultured elite to enlighten their biased contempt and entertain their voyeurism. The strategy operating in this sort of work is essentially motivated as “political art” that avoids explicit commentary in favor of implicit reality expressed by the human condition. Ahearn and Torres have for years operated a sculpture workshop in the South Bronx, and from there they erode the stereotypes of those they depict.

Ahearn’s evolving sculptural project had essentially been to cast life-sized oil-painted fiberglass portraits of members of his South Bronx community. The nature of his portraiture is the effort to give those he depicts a personal sense of their own identity by allowing them to see themselves as special rather than as outcasts of mainstream society. Ahearn combats cultural stereotypes on two fronts, the internal alienation and self-doubt of the slum, and the “liberal” preconceptions of his art-world audience. He tries to bridge that gap by playing off racial fear of the art audience, and in this show his figures depict a kind of threatening, agitated violence and are as disturbing as they seem discontentedly disturbed. The art, however, does not reinforce the bigoted image; rather, it undermines this image by adding a human dimension to it. Ahearn brings the neglected dwellers of the South Bronx into a simulated one-to-one encounter with us, and as we stare into their faces, expressions at once intense and vacant, there is certainly a reflection with as much value as inner terror.

Previously, Ahearn’s portraits were one-sided busts that hung as wall pieces, a composition undeniably more quirky than his new standing floor pieces in the tradition of Duane Hanson and George Segal. It is inevitably a bit of a shock when an artist changes his trademark creative gesture as Ahearn does with this new scale and format. It may take some time to position ourselves to Ahearn’s new work—and certainly it may take some time for Ahearn to gain back a bit of his eccentric voice, which seems to have ebbed here. But this is a penetrating art in which Ahearn brings across the personality of his characters. As for this task of humanizing the dehumanized, he continues to grow.

Carlo McCormick