John Ahearn, Cast Sculpture, Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona (1994)
John Ahearn makes casts of the people of the South Bronx in New York, much the way George Segal does, but instead of leaving the figures dead, plaster-white, he paints and develops the surfaces trying to capture the individuality and humanity of the sitters.
While the works are not completely successful as sculpture, the artist is doing something extremely important in this age of arid, intellectual sterility in the arts. Ahearn is directly linking his art to the life and people in the neighborhood where he lives and works.
The most successful pieces in the exhibition at Arizona State University are two large-scale, free-standing sculptures, "Veronica and Her Mother," oil on fiberglass and wood, 1988, and "Raymond and Tobey," oil on fiber-glass, 1989.
The former expresses the touching relationship between the mother
-- very emaciated, her dark skin blotched by white, a bandage on her upper arm -- and her young daughter, standing on a step, reaching up to put her arms around her mother's neck, looking with adoration in her face.
The mother seems very ill and almost loath to touch her child for fear she might transmit the disease, though their bodies press close against each other. The mother's thin arms barely contact, if at all, the child's side, her hands like claws extending behind the child's back, inch or more-long fingernails painted brilliant scarlet as if the mother's final try at life, some semblance of beauty and dignity.
The mother's elongated, planar body revealed by a simple white dress, the insistent verticality of the work, and great depth of feeling contribute to the success of the sculpture.
"Raymond" is a black or Latino youth in a dark, hooded sweatshirt, squatting beside his large pit bull, "Tobey," his knee against the dog's side, one hand on its other side in a kind of embrace, the left hand bulging in his sweatshirt pocket. The two figures are beautifully conceived and observed, accurate and true. Raymond stares into space as if pondering his very uncertain future, his face powerfully modeled. And, what a great dog!
Even in the face of this genuinely positive art activity, it is necessary to point out that, in some of the work, the inherent weakness of casting is apparent. The result is a photographic, illustrational conception of form rather than a thoroughly, organically integrated structure with the timeless core and solidity of great sculpture, whether Egyptian, Greek or Renaissance.
Rodin, in his brilliantly anatomically realistic sculpture of a male figure, "The Age of Bronze," was accused of having cast it from the body of the model (a sin of non-creativity in the past, a virtue in our topsy-turvy world of disrupted values today). Rodin worked from life, of course, but an examination of "The Age of Bronze," or any other significant sculpture, will reveal the intrinsic sculptural integrity of form that transcends the accumulation of surface detail and illustrational hollowness.
This point made, let it be said there is much more virtue than defect in the best of John Ahearn's work.