Art / Culture

Longwood legends come down off the walls

Joerg Lohse. Courtesy of Alexander and Bonin.

John Ahearn’s Double Dutch, from 1981.

Sculpture exhibit features busts of ‘80s residents

For more than 30 years, John Ahearn’s fiberglass sculptures depicting local residents and street scenes have adorned the sides of apartment buildings throughout Longwood.

Now, an exhibition of Ahearn’s work,”Works from Dawson Street and Walton Avenue,” is underway at Alexander and Bonin Art Gallery in Chelsea, featuring replicas of some of the artist’s earliest creations.

“These works represent when John made some of his most important friendships on the streets of the neighborhood,” said Ayi Egas, an assistant at the gallery. “That neighborhood, the connection with neighbors and the involvement with the community is what makes his work so important.”

Ahearn began to cast subjects in the South Bronx in 1979. He met longtime collaborator Rigoberto Torres during an exhibition called “South Bronx Hall of Fame,” and the two opened a studio on Walton Avenue near Dawson Street shortly after.

Ahearn created some of his most famous works followed that fortuitous encounter, including “Double Dutch,” which he sculpted in 1981, and “Life on Dawson Street” in 1982–both inspired by Longwood residents who lived near his studio.

In the early ‘80s, as the community was struggling through harsh economic times, the two sculptors gained notoriety for bringing residents together for public showings of their work. They would routinely cast their subjects –Longwood residents covered in plaster with only straws to breathe through their noses — right out on the sidewalks.

“These things were built when the South Bronx was a wreck, yet there was still a spirit in the area that life goes on,” said Harry DeRienzo, president of the Banana Kelly Neighborhood Community Improvement Association, which owns one of the buildings where Ahearn’s work hangs. “With Ahearn’s stuff, it was always all about the people here. There was an immediate connection.”

In 2012, Ahearn and Torres participated in the Frieze Art Fair on Randall’s Island, exhibiting their original “South Bronx Hall of Fame,” which sparked interest in the historical context of their early work.

In collaboration with Alexander and Bonin, Ahearn chose the pieces for the current display as a follow-up to that 2012 show, focusing on the Longwood sites that inspired some of his best-known work of the 80’s.

One of the objectives of the exhibition, he said, is to provide a sense of context for gallery-goers who have never seen the sculptures on the walls of Longwood buildings where they have hung since the ‘80s.

On a January afternoon, a small crowd meandered through the two-room exhibit in Chelsea.

Courtney Robinson, 24, of Brooklyn admitted that she was not familiar with the South Bronx, but was able to sense what the neighborhood is like from the exhibition. She said she now wants to explore Longwood.

“They are so realistic,” said Robinson. “The people cast look like such great characters, you can really feel the emotion.”

During a tour of Chelsea galleries, a group of touring architecture students from a Cincinnati university stopped in. They were immediately drawn to a 1985 piece called “Titi in the Window” that depicts a neighborhood matriarch looking down onto the street.

“As an architecture student, it’s easy to get caught up in the design,” said Rachael Sheilds, 19. “This inspires you to want to think more about the human aspect of art, more about the people. It inspires you to want to feel for them.”

“The body language, the gestures, they connect you to the person–it’s like a time capsule,” added the leader of the student tour, Gustavo Asto, who runs an art education company in Chelsea.

Other well known Ahearn sculptures on display at the gallery include Raymond The Rat Killer from the late 1980s; Lazaro, a 1991 hospital patient who was cast after narrowly surviving a violent accident in the neighborhood; and a series of busts cast in 1981.

The exhibit is scheduled to continue through Feb. 22. The Alexander and Bonin Gallery is located at 132 Tenth Avenue between 18th and 19th streets in Chelsea.


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