April 10, 2023

Swagger and Tenderness

The South Bronx Portraits by Rigoberto Torres and John Ahearn

On view thru April 30 at The Bronx Museum


I took photos of all of the nameplates, but in some cases the photo I took is too low quality—some of these names may be incorrect! The ones where I'm not sure have (?) next to them:

Maria; The Graduates: Bashira and Princess; Barcarra(?)

Sunshine; Shirley; Michael Wilson greeting his father

Maria Greeting her Mother; Scorpio; Shorty Working at the C&R Statuary Corp.

Jose and Laura; Carmen and Erica; Daon(?)

Maria; Yashua Red; Melissa Maycock

Devon with his Father’s Last Tattoo; Raymond and Toby; Pregnant Girl

Mario and Norma; Cosmic; Julio, José, and Junito

Cynthia; Carmen; Margie Villa(?)

Kierra with Pearl Earring; El Presidente; Teri

This show is so striking to see in person. The deep blue of the wall contrasts with and brings out the best in the sculptures, which feel so alive and tender. 

One of the most interesting parts of this exhibit for me though was the topic of attribution between the two collaborators, with John Ahearn historically having been elevated much more in the presentation of these pieces. Here's a didactic panel from one of Torres' pieces:
"Remarkably, this is the first Ahearn and Torres exhibition to treat both artists equally by including the same number of artworks by each - usually, Ahearn is favored. Despite their symbiotic partnership, Ahearn is paradigmatically portrayed as the collaborative's leader or even credited with sole authorship of works both he and Torres made. In representations of their work, it is disturbing how frequently Torres's name is omitted or, if he is credited, he is referred to as Ahearn's assistant or lesser partner. Art critics have pitted the lifelong partners against one another, praising Ahearn's painterliness over Torres's aesthetic straightforwardness. In a rare review to the contrary from 2021, however, art critic Angella d'Avignon writes, "Where Ahearn is muted, Torres is radiant.' An examination of their relationship and the imbalance in their reception histories is long overdue.

Ahearn was born in Binghamton, New York, in 1951 and moved to the South Bronx around age thirty. Torres was born in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico, in 1960 and was raised in the South Bronx. Ahearn earned a BFA at Cornell. During high school, Torres studied art-making by working at his Uncle Raul's religious statue factory. In 1979, when they first met, John cast Rigoberto, then they started collaborating at Fashion Moda, an alternative art space that opened in 1978 in a South Bronx storefront. Author Peter L'Official describes their beginnings:
Ahearn's . . . partnership with the then seventeen-year-old high school student Torres was born out of the teen seeing Ahearn's work and recognizing a relationship with his uncle's Bronx statuary company, which produced religious figures for local botanica shops.
Indeed, Ahearn's "South Bronx Hall of Fame" show, whose audience featured many of the African American and Latinx subjects cast by the artist for his painted, lifelike mascarilla (or face mask) statuary, had the effect of transforming the storefront art space into a reliquary for still-living saints for all the community to see." ——Amy Rosenblum-Martin, co-curator

"Alexander and Bonin, Ahearn’s New York dealers, have represented Torres informally for years but as of Oct. 27, Torres wasn’t listed as an artist on their website. When I asked why, they added him. “It was about time to make it official,” said Carolyn Alexander, one of the owners." — Travis Diehl, in the NYT Review of the show

Something else to contend with, when seeing this show, is the whiteness of the name behind much of the publicity and creative attribution alongside the general whiteness of NYC/US art spaces and audiences. Contrasted and compared with the blackness, the "Swagger and Tenderness", of these subjects. Though not entirely settled, I do think presenting and seeing this survey at the Bronx Museum forces some uncomfortable thinking about what it would feel like to see these pieces somewhere else in the city, or even the world.
For more on these questions, read Jane Kramer's probing essay "Whose Art is It?" from 1992.

a fascinating, beautiful, living show. Highly recommend seeing if you can! 


🐇happy easter🐣 to all, and to all a good night