“Ed, this looks like a million bucks,” says renowned sculptor, John Ahearn, to his model, 77-year-old Eduardo Estevez, who is lying underneath a pool of alginate which Ahearn is pouring onto his face and shoulders. Once the alginate firms, Ahearn then layers strips of plaster-drenched gauze on top. Throughout the process, he darts across the studio for supplies — arms in the air — and makes sure to continuously check in with Estevez. “You doing okay, Ed?” to which Estevez can only respond to with low grunts given the plaster cast on his face and the straws up his nose.
After the cast hardens, Ahearn, along with his assistant of nearly 40 years, Kevin Crocker, slowly sit Estevez up from the nearly 180-degree reclining chair and carefully pull him out of the cast.
As the plaster cast is removed from his face, shoulders and arms, Estevez lets out a wide-eyed, “oh s–t,” in a gravelly voice which sounds more of boulders. “I feel great right now, for a little while – no,” he adds.
Estevez was in the studio for more than an hour, but from when the alginate is poured to the removal of the cast, the process takes about 30 minutes. And even though it’s only half-an-hour, it’s long enough to spawn feelings of claustrophobia. “I’ve had people tear it right off,” says Ahearn of past projects.
Ahearn, from upstate New York, along with his contemporary, Rigoberto Torres, from Puerto Rico, have been creating plaster portraits together for more than 40 years. After decades of touring their work across the United States and internationally, Ahearn and Torres will finally have a full survey of their work back where it all started – the Boogie Down.
On Oct. 26, the Bronx Museum of the Arts will feature, “Swagger and Tenderness: The South Bronx Portraits of John Ahearn and Rigoberto Torres.”
“I do think that it’s kind of amazing that the South Bronx is represented all over the world through their artwork — so let’s return it to the people of the South Bronx. That’s where it belongs, to the South Bronx,” said co-curator, Amy Rosenblum-Martín.
The two sculptors met at Fashion MODA (1978-1993) – an experimental art space in the bustling Hub of the South Bronx which was at the onset of hip-hop and graffiti. During the early ‘80s, Torres and Ahearn would open-up shop on the sidewalks of the South Bronx and invite passersby to be live-cast in plaster. Having an art studio in the public sphere is not only reminiscent of the experimental happenings of the ‘60s, but it piqued the curiosity of those in the neighborhood. When the artistic process results in your subject not being able to see and forces them to regulate their breathing through straws in their nose, having an open and populated environment adds an element of safety. Specifically when one considers the era of drug-fueled crime and distrust that filled the air of New York City streets, especially in the Bronx.
“I was trying to compare it to my youth. You just didn’t go in some strange space, even if it was in public,” said co-curator, cultural viceroy and Bronx native, Ron Kavanaugh. “The fact that Rigo was there — he spoke Spanish.”
In 1980, the Bronx had a Hispanic population of nearly 34% — of which 80% were Puerto Rican and a majority were relegated to the South Bronx.
Ahearn and Torres’ portraits are thoughtful and tell a story while literally capturing a moment in time. Painted with acrylic, the colors of the plaster casts are realistic and personify their subjects, brining life to the lifeless. Portraying the people of the Bronx as a subject matter not only coincides with the tenets of Modern Art — in that it deviates from portraying the wealthy and aristocratic — but in that it also places a demographic that has never been featured in the Art World before. Black girls playing double Dutch, a mechanic with a tire in tow, a father and child — Ahearn and Torres’ portraits are based in the goings-on of the everyday average Joe. They highlight the beauty in simplicity with smiles abound.
“People don’t see what I see. Then when they see the work, they think, ‘wow, I never thought that my figure would be in a museum,’ and that makes me happy,” Torres says in his Puerto Rican Spanish. “It’s what brings me joy.”
The exhibit will feature more than 60 plaster portraits along with a 100-page catalog edited by Kavanaugh. The catalog will include interviews with the artists, poems, essays, photos and more. Parts of the museum will be revamped to showcase a “distinctly Bronx aesthetic.” Architects, Dario Nuñez-Ameni and Jorge Plazas, are working together to transform the austere, white, polygonal rooms into neoclassical spaces painted in cerulean blue. The neoclassical design is an homage to the architecture that can be found in the Bronx – much like the Bronx County Courthouse which is a few blocks south of the museum.
“Swagger and Tenderness: The South Bronx Portraits by John Ahearn and Rigoberto Torres” will run Oct. 26 through April 30, 2023. The opening reception on Oct. 29 is free with RSVP and will include food from several Bronx vendors. There will also be special events like a double Dutch competition, a Salsa dance party, tours with the curators and more throughout the duration of the exhibit.
This article was updated on Oct. 14 at 12:06 p.m.
Reach ET Rodriguez at [email protected]. For more coverage, follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @bronxtimes