Mario & Antonio

It has long been the custom of proud, self-assured cities to honour individuals who enjoy social importance or have served their country in some way with a memorial in their likeness. Just as in Rotterdam, where Queen Wilhelmina and Erasmus have been immortalized by Charlotte van Pallandt and Hendrick de Keyser, the United States have the same tradition of honouring its presidents, astronauts and sports heroes in stone or bronze. As a response to this John Ahearn and Rigoberto Torres make sculptures that place ordinary individuals on a pedestal.
Since 1980 they have been creating portraits of people that live in the Bronx. With their depictions of residents from one of New York’s disadvantaged neighbourhoods, they provide the American art world with new subject matter. The issue of emancipating a non-white subclass, which America has been struggling with for decades, is a theme now visible on the walls of galleries and museums.

John Ahearn was one of the founder members in 1977 of Collaborative Projects (CoLab), an artists’ collective that organized exhibitions in squats or temporary rented premises, since it was virtually impossible for young artists to break through in New York’s established art market. At the same time they were of the idea that art and ‘real’ life were far removed from each other. It was time for art to engage again with the world outside the museum, with social themes and with the general public. The artists took control and took responsibility for the presentation and distribution of their work. Direct contact with the general public – rather than with galleries or curators acting as intermediaries – was central to this. For instance, in 1980 Ahearn, along with other artists, including Tom Otterness, organized the famous Times Square Show in an empty building on this well-known square. A new generation of artists were to establish their names permanently there with graffiti art and figurative work in an often borrowed language of form, which was coined ‘appropriation art’.
Ahearn’s wish to bond directly with the general audience, and preferably a public that had limited access to the official art world, resulted in him moving to a studio in the Bronx shortly after the Times Square Show. There he met Rigoberto Torres, nine years younger than Ahearn. Of Puertorican origin, Torres worked in a factory where religious figures were cast. He helped Ahearn get acquainted with the neighbourhood and taught him the technique of casting. Together they invited neighbours, friends and acquaintances in the area to their studio to have their portraits cast. Making a mould was often an entire happening: it took place on the street facing a crowd who had come flocking to watch. The model was given two straws in his or her nose in order to breathe and then the entire head and upper body was bandaged in a plaster cast. After twenty minutes, when the mould had hardened, the model was relieved of the cast. The casts were then painted and Ahearn and Torres hung the result on an outside wall of their studio. All those portrayed were given a cast of themselves, while the second example was for the artists.
The series of portraits grew over the years and was dubbed the South Bronx Hall of Fame. You would expect heart-rending portraits of people with faces etched by hard work, but this was not the case. The sculptures are tableaux vivants, full of a lust for life, of moments that touch the core of human interaction – mothers and daughters hugging each other, playing and laughing children, jolly workers and proud hoodlums. Some are holding the attributes of their daily activities, others stand in one of their typical poses. The figures are painted expressionistically, often in bright colours, setting off their – for the most part – dark skin. The sculptures have a strong impact because one knows these people actually exist. It is not the shape or the execution of the reproductions that draws the attention, but the originals.

South Bronx Hall of Fame was the title also used for a retrospective showing ten years of sculpture by Torres and Ahearn. The exhibition successfully travelled to several American museums in 1990 and 1991. Chris Dercon, then director of the Witte de With centre of contemporary art, brought the exhibition to Rotterdam and offered the artists a workspace. Originally they were to use a studio at the art centre until they met a neighbourhood worker, Ed de Meyer, in a bar. He invited them to work in the local neighbourhood centre and there the same thing happened as in the South Bronx – moulds were made of the many residents that gathered to participate over several evenings. All models were given their portrait to take home. Aheam and Torres ultimately left three wall reliefs behind in locations that were related to the neighbourhood’s sense of the community in some way. The relief Mario and Antonio – on a side wall on the corner of Witte de Withstraat and Kromme Elleboog – is the most significant example of the social philosophy behind the artists’ work in Rotterdam. The area around Witte de Withstraat is multicultural and there was much unemployment and poverty in the early 1990s. During Ahearn and Torres’s visit a project had just started whereby residents, for a small remuneration, formed squads to keep the neighbourhood clean. The artists were fascinated by this successful form of employment and initiative and decided to immortalize one of the members of a squad. Next to him is an unemployed school leaver. The cleaner appears to be looking at the young boy, as if to admonish him and spur him to roll up his sleeves and get to work.
Ahearn and Torres do not always work together anymore. Torres has stayed in the Bronx but Ahearn has moved. Nevertheless they will always remain ‘the artists of the South Bronx Hall of Fame’. It is their lifetime’s work and sculptures are still being added.

Mariette Dölle

Kramer, J., Whose Art Is It?, Durham & London 1994. / Exhib. cat. South Bronx Hall of Fame: John Ahearn and Rigoberto Torres, Houston/Rotterdam (Contemporary Arts Museum / Witte de With) 1991.

Publicatiedatum: 12/05/2015