'Life on Dawson St,' Thomas, Barbara, Pedro with tire, Pat, & Selena by John Ahearn,
Kids on Dawson Street,
Audrey & Janelle
Cast of Kido with his sister Elizabeth, her husband Ariel and daughter Stephanie, 1986
Luis and Virginia at home with their cast from 1980.
John Ahearn followed his identical twin brother Charlie to New York City in 1974. Charlie had participated in the Whitney artist program. John had lost his way as an outsider landscape painter and now wanted to become a contemporary artist. Charlie knew all these great young artists who were committed to conceptual art, performance and video. The group began having meetings discussing ways they could be more relevant to society. The artists formed a collective in 1977, Collaborative Projects (best known as Colab).
In The Red Book (1978, an NEA application document authored by Coleen Fitzgibbon, Andrea Callard and Ulli Rimkus), the non-profit organization explained, "We [Collaborative Projects] are functioning as a group of artists with complementary resources and skills providing a solid ground for collaborative work directed to the needs of the community-at-large. Specifically we are involved in programs facilitating development, production, and distribution of collaborative works. These works are realized in various media including film and video for distribution and cable-cast, and live cable TV broadcasts, as well as other more conventional art media such as graphics and printed materials." Over its ten-year period included Jane Dickson, Diego Cortez, Stefan Eins, Jenny Holtzer, Joe Lewis, Tom Otterness, Walter Robinson, Lisa Kahane, James Nares, Kiki Smith and Eric Mitchell.
Colab was fertile ground for explorative work in a city that had been teetering upon bankruptcy for the better part of the decade. Ahearn recalls, “At the same time, Colab was beginning to have theme shows, which ironically featured all handmade art on the walIs. I had to make something. I was staying at Patty Astor’s apartment (Patty was the downtown underground movie star). I had found there a book‚ Make-up for Film and Television‚ which explained how to lifecast faces. I wanted to present face-castings of friends painted like Coney Island monsters. Robert Cooney (also Colab) asked me to do a face-casting of him as a performance on Manhattan Cable, and I agreed. I got so excited to work in front of an audience! Charlie suggested I try the live casting at Fashion Moda the art storefront Stefan Eins had in the South Bronx. Fashion Moda was in a very busy area and it had a great stage platform right the storefront picture window. The street traffic was enthusiastic and everyone wanted me to make one for them. I found a new identity.”
Throughout 1979, the cast faces were painted as portraits and hung in a line. Ahearn called the situation the “South Bronx Hall of Fame.” Rigoberto Torres walked into Fashion Moda in June and introduced himself to Ahearn. Torres was only 17, but he saw a connection between the Hall of Fame and his uncle Raul’s Bronx Statuary factory. Ahearn made a cast of Rigoberto that day. Together Ahearn and Rigoberto began visiting the factory. They decided to form an art partnership (that lasts to this day). They got a commission to make a permanent figurative sculpture mural on Fox St. in the Bronx.
Ahearn recalls ‚ “We found a storefront recently closed with a sign, Kelly St. Youth Center‚ over the door. We reopened it as our workshop. Now we could work in the Bronx with a purpose: to celebrate the survivors, to create sculptures of the community that could be shared by everyone. It was very natural and easy. In three years, we completed three murals, each with a different local neighborhood organization. The Double Dutch wall was with Banana Kelly.”
We are talking in Ahearn’s studio. On the floor around us are plaster sculptures of women cast at the Park Avenue Women’s shelter in 1992 that are being restored. Ahearn has always repaired friend‚ plaster sculptures, and often they are works from Bronx living rooms very much like those made by uncle Raul in the ‘80s. “I it relaxing to restore old pieces,” Ahearn said.
“Sometimes when I am in a museum like the Met, I think everything there is out of its original context. I remind myself that my work is the same, and this is how it functions in the artworld. Always there is theft and misunderstanding, but this art survives in some way and has some kind of meaning. If my portraits look out of place in the art world, maybe that is their function.”
Kid reaches for 'Corey with arms folded'
The Rubell home at the after-Whitney Party on wall 'Sneakertown,' John Ahearn
a 'Liberty' sculpture by Keith Harring and a painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat.
Johnny, 1979, by John Ahearn,
Kids around window watching JA casting Carlos with Tom Otterness in background.
Crowd Outside Fashion Moda