In 1979, sculptor John Ahearn began making life models in the showcase of Fashion Moda, a celebrated interdisciplinary art space in the Bronx that operated from 1978 to 1993. Lifecasting is a strange and fascinating artistic process that generates sculptures by placing molds on live subjects, and Ahearn’s public performances about it quickly caused a stir. “It was a wonderful experience I had with the people who walked in and took an interest in the process,” Ahearn recalled.
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One of the people who was intrigued by Ahearn’s lifecasting was a taxi driver named Wally, who went home and told his family what he had seen. Eventually word got out about Wally’s cousin Rigoberto, who at the time was a 17-year-old working in his uncle’s religious statue factory. When Ahearn met Rigoberto that day, it was the start of an extraordinarily fruitful artistic collaboration that will last a lifetime.
“When I met Rigoberto I had a very strong feeling that he was not like anyone else I had met so far in the Bronx,” Ahearn said. “I knew him and trusted him. I felt this way in the moments I met. Rigoberto understood lifecasting and sharing it with others. He brought the materials back to his neighborhood and started lifecasting the way we did at Fashion Moda ”.
That young man, whose full name is Rigoberto Torres, became a canonized creator of sculptures that reflected and celebrated life in his Bronx neighborhood, working alongside Ahearn for decades. Torres explained that, at the time, he had no idea he was embarking on a lifelong artistic path. “I was just looking for something I could do instead of working in a factory, which wasn’t satisfying,” he said. “I enjoyed meeting the people I have played in life: at first it is complicated, but then over time you become a family”.
In Swagger and Tenderness: The South Bronx Portraits by John Ahearn and Rigoberto Torres, the Bronx Museum of the Arts celebrates Ahearn and Torres’ 40 years of collaboration with an extensive review of their work together, exhibiting around 65 pieces in the community whose different personalities, professions and cultures were the very basis of these sculptures. The exhibition, which runs from October 26 to April 2023, and includes archival and ephemeral images, is the first major retrospective of the duo’s artistic collaboration since 1991.
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Lifecasting is a very personal and involved means of creating highly realistic sculptures that involve applying modeling material to the body of an artist’s living, breathing subject. Once the mold solidifies and establishes its shape, it is carefully removed, leaving a surprisingly realistic copy of its subject. Lifecasting requires subjects to remain very still throughout the process and involves a great deal of confidence – for example, when it comes to faces, it is essential to use straws so that subjects can continue to breathe. Because it is such an intimate method, it allows for a unique kind of relationship between an artist and his model, which is reflected in the character of the resulting work. “It takes a while to explain it to people and get them to understand what it is,” Torres said. “It’s a challenge to make sure our subjects don’t feel jittery or shaky.”
Because of the immediacy that lifeasting can offer, Ahearn likened it to on-site street photography. “When I started lifecasting,” Ahearn explained, “I thought of it as a Polaroid. He was very present, very direct and fast. You put the material down and take it out, and the sculpture is there, and it’s practically done already. It seemed more popular and straightforward as a way to do something.
Adapting to a popular art form more akin to Polaroid photography than statuary art, the works on display in Swagger and Tenderness are friendly, easy to connect, and greatly reflect the stories of the Bronx community as a whole, showcasing the daily presence that forms the web of life in the Bronx. Among the pieces of Swagger and Tenderness are Ahearn and Torres ‘cast of a man dominating his’ 80s-style boom box, a graffiti artist in a black hoodie and gas mask, arms encircling dozens of cans. of spray paint, two women hugging in a warm embrace, and a man crouched behind his proud dog.
Because these sculptures are by and for the Bronx community, curators Amy Rosenblum-Martín and Ron Kavanaugh have been concerned with creating an experience that truly invites the community and provides a space where they can linger and feel at home. Thought to embody the feel of the neighborhood around it, the exhibit also has dedicated tables where museum visitors can play skelzies or dominoes while taking a break from investigating the artwork. “The exhibition aims to amplify John and Rigoberto’s radical love for all Bronxites,” said Rosenblum-Martín. “He’s definitely working against a white box aesthetic and working towards the kind of architectural aesthetic you see in the community buildings around the museum. We are designing seating areas where people feel encouraged to take the whole extended family and friends with them and sit and play for a while. “
Kavanaugh oversaw the creation of the exhibition catalog, which strives to represent numerous Bronx voices in various ways. Among these is the inclusion of a graphic novel written by Kavanaugh and illustrated by Bronx artist Sole Rebel, which features a young heroine from the Bronx and in which Ahearn and Torres play a crucial role.
Referring to the inspiration behind his graphic novel and the show as a whole, Kavanaugh said, “Now it’s important to have heroes. I looked at John and Rigo like that. Both entered the community to engage people – it takes courage to settle outdoors and invite your neighbors to be part of your art project. I couldn’t imagine participating in something like this [lifecasting] voluntarily. For John and Rigo, getting people to come out of their homes, cover their faces with plastic and participate, is heroic in a different way. “
Reflecting the many cordial relationships Ahearn and Torres have built over their decades of creation, Swagger and Tenderness offers a sense of exuberance and positive energy that reflects the essence of the community. “It is a joy to make people happy and to see the expression on their face when I do,” Torres said. That sense of happiness and social cohesion is exactly what makes this compelling exhibit that should be experienced.