LOS ANGELES — The Bronx Comes to Los Angeles revisits artists John Ahearn and Rigoberto Torres’s 40-year collaborative practice, featuring 16 works ranging from 1990 to 2020, spread out across the two upstairs rooms at Charlie James Gallery in Los Angeles’s Chinatown.
Ahearn and Torres met in 1979 at the Fashion Moda storefront space in the Bronx where Torres joined Ahearn in making life casts of kids and adults that they met around the neighborhood. An early alternative art space, Fashion Moda’s name conceptualized the idea that art could be made by anyone and it was in this spirit and juncture that Torres and Ahearn teamed up for what would be a lifetime of creative partnership. Since then, Torres and Ahearn have continued to collaborate, working together on the restoration of the “Double Dutch” mural in the Bronx in 2018 and as recently as 2020 when they were named finalists for a PBS American Portrait project.
Over FaceTime, Charlie James introduced each sculpture like he would a friend. “This is Monxo,” he said, focusing on “Monxo BX” (2017), a plaster bust of a young Puerto Rican man wearing a thick beard and a cute smile, in a brown T-shirt, crossing his arms over his chest to make the Bronx BX. Each Ahearn bust is marked by an ambivalent countenance: one is leaning away from the viewer and rubbing his eye; another, a kid with an impenetrable expression in his graduation gown.
Torres’s “Yomo Toro” (1999) stands in the doorway, his eight-stringed guitar in hand, wearing a shiny, slick black hat, suit, and polished shoes; he has a thick mustache and crooner’s eyebrows. He’s either finished a song or is about to start one — diaphragm up or about to collapse. It’s a moment filled with potential energy captured in a freestanding sculpture, the first visible from the gallery’s storefront doorway.
Where Ahearn is muted, Torres is radiant. You can see Torres’s influence on Ahearn’s busts from the mid-1980s, which are glossy and bright, compared to his later reliefs which are brushy and sketchlike. Many might remember Ahearn for being at the center of a timely sociopolitical debate in 1991, when South Bronx community members decried his “South Bronx Bronzes” as monolithic and stereotypical, life-cast from actual residents he met when he moved to the neighborhood in the late 1970s. While he has managed to escape the intense scrutiny he first earned, this legacy of criticism has followed him since and effectively drowned out his collaboration with Torres, which proves to be the lifeblood of Ahearn’s known work. Ahearn continues to live in the same area to this day where he is very much embedded with the community alongside Torres.
The Bronx Comes to Los Angeles (which is an unfortunately cloying name) presents Ahearn’s and Torres’s works side by side, and it is ultimately Torres’s sculptures that stand out.
Take, for instance, the artists’ respective self-portraits. Ahearn’s “Orange Self” (2010) is a chalky plaster white with brushes of safety orange paint. The jaw of Ahearn’s face comes forward. No irises. Hellenistic horror in a T-shirt. He said he couldn’t get the pupils right so he left them blank.
Torres’s “Split Portrait” (1997-2001), a bust of the artist’s face and shoulders cast in plaster and painted with thick acrylic paint, is sliced longways like ham. The undulation of each slice is like piano keys, each one a note playing all at once, discordant. A hand smashing down on the keyboard. Torres interpreted a near-fatal asthma attack like Umberto Boccioni’s “Unique Forms of Continuity in Space” (1913), his bright blue shirt and forehead swelling with Futurist dynamism, replicating the existential accordion wheeze of severe asthma.
It’s an intimate and personal sculpture with distinctive material choices that outshines the others. It is Torres’s style that saturates the space around it with presence and life.
The Bronx Comes to Los Angeles continues at Charlie James Gallery (969 Chung King Rd, Chinatown, Los Angeles) through March 27.