words: brendan o’connor
art: john ahearn & rigoberto torres
John Ahearn’s second-floor studio is above a tire shop in the Bronx neighborhood of Mott Haven. Ahearn, bright-eyed and wide-jawed, is dressed in all white, down to his sneakers. “Come in, come in,” he says. “But watch out—people are losing their heads in here.” He picks up a plaster skull and waves it around, grinning.
His studio is full of projects in various states of completion. Ahearn is both quiet and energetic, interrupting himself repeatedly to clarify and ask questions that he immediately answers. He envies the street-level porousness of the tire shop: people walking by can peek in and see what’s happening; those working inside can look out and watch the neighborhood go by.
For more than three decades, Ahearn has been taking molds of people and casting them in plaster—often on the street right outside a studio or gallery. Although he now lives in Harlem, Ahearn, born and raised in Binghamton, New York, has been working in the Bronx since 1980. Then 27, he was pulled out of the East Village and Soho scene by the Fashion Moda Gallery in the South Bronx, an alternative art space where Jenny Holzer and Keith Haring drew inspiration from graffiti writers like John ‘Crash’ Matos and Chris ‘Daze’ Ellis. (Today, Crash and Daze have workspaces in the same building as Ahearn.) In June 1980, Ahearn planned and participated in the momentous Times Square Show, a partnership between Fashion Moda and the Soho-based artist group Collaborative Projects, Inc., which featured dozens of now-famous artists. A year later, influential collectors Mera and Don Rubell purchased Ahearn’s “Sneakertown, USA,” hanging it in their townhouse next to a Haring and a Basquiat.
When Rigoberto Torres met Ahearn at Fashion Moda, he was only 18 years old, working odd jobs around the city (including casting and painting religious figures at his uncle’s statuary factory). Torres approached the older artist to ask him to be his teacher, but soon they were working as creative partners, and Torres convinced Ahearn to move to the South Bronx. Far removed from the downtown art scene, the South Bronx was part of the poorest congressional district in the country and had an exceedingly high murder rate. For the next 15 years or so, Ahearn and Torres cast anyone who was willing, working out of two ground-level rooms Ahearn rented in a building on Walton Avenue.
Ahearn and Torres’ sculptures are, broadly speaking, lifelike, and are made to resemble the people who’ve been cast—but they are not strictly realistic. Part of that is a function of their artistic method, which is called “lifecasting”: a subject lies on the floor, and his or her face (or limbs, torso, shoulders) is covered with alginate, a gummy substance used in dentistry and also as an additive to thicken drinks. The subject breathes through a pair of straws in the nostrils while plaster bandages are applied. These harden into a mold that is filled sometimes with bronze or fiberglass but most often with plaster, which Ahearn and Torres then carve and paint, each in his own style.
For their subjects, the process can be claustrophobic. “I don’t like to make people suffer, and I don’t like to create anxiety in them. I feel badly that the practice I have involves so much anxiety and sense of risk. But there is a positive side to it, which is that the people who get involved also demonstrate to themselves and others what they’re capable of—so they’re actually collaborating with me to create something,” he says. “In some ways, 90 percent of the thing was figured out automatically the first time I did it. So, one could say, ‘Why don’t you go on to do other things?’ But the repetition of this activity sustains me. It’s a kind of relationship, my doing this, with someone else being there.”
That relationship works both ways. Homes throughout the South Bronx still contain plaster castings of family members done by Ahearn and Torres, and sculptural scenes of people from around the area endure on the sides of four buildings: “Double Dutch at Kelly Street,” “Life on Dawson Street,” “We Are a Family,” and “Back to School.” All were cast from people Ahearn and Torres knew from the neighborhood. Recently, a man named Quito, whom Ahearn had cast years ago, found Ahearn’s new studio and brought him his sculpture to be repaired. The nose had broken off.