Houston

John Ahearn/Rigoberto Torres

Contemporary Arts Museum Houston

John Ahearn and Rigoberto Torres are remarkable artists, not only for their empathic identification with, and celebration of, their ghetto subjects, but for their innovative use of body casts and their unique mode of exhibition. Their works are meant for the ghetto and not for gallery walls; they are, in effect, relief murals that function as guardians, projecting over and protecting the lifespace of the people they represent. Indeed, seen in situ, they have a shrinelike effect. They make subtle use of the architecture, which they adorn, adding artistic life to the grim surroundings, by pointing to the vibrant life within the buildings. The reliefs constitute a kind of homage to the people, made by artists who live among them and share their lifestyle.

Whereas George Segal, the great master of body-cast sculpture, generally presents his figures without color—bleached ghostly white to suggest urgent existential significance—the life-cast figures of Ahearn and Torres are painted in vital, natural color. There is a joie de vivre to these works; indeed, they are life-affirming rather than death-infected. The exhibition includes freestanding figures and installation scenes as well as wall reliefs, and in each type of work there are bust-length, half-length, and full-length figures. Where the part figure is presented, the part is made to seem a whole unto itself. The artists often frame an intimate, personal moment, presenting it as desirable in itself, as in the double bust-length portrait of Luis and Virginia Arroyo embracing. These figures are implicitly naked, and, indeed, there is nothing shy about this art, though nothing vulgar either. The dignity of the subjects is in constant focus, not in some militantly idealizing way, but with a quiet confidence in their intrinsic worth as subjects.

Is this sculpture, then, a kind of propaganda? I think not, although it is profoundly sociopolitical, in that, through its joyous realism and humanism, it reasserts the principle of the individual’s right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Indeed, to see happiness depicted in art is a novelty. There are also many images of people caring for people, as in Maria and Her Mother, 1987—another rarely rendered subject. Ahearn and Torres have, I think, a special way with children, representing them in all their complicated inwardness, as in Boobie (Sneakertown USA), 1981. They render emotion with succinct directness and deceptive simplicity, for their work is premised on a complicated sense of the relationship between the artist and the model. If, as Max J. Friedlander argued, every portrait is a self-portrait, then Ahearn and Torres are magnificent human beings—good artists uncynically representing good people.

Donald Kuspit