Over the years, John Ahearn (sometimes working with fellow sculptor Rigoberto Torres) has succeeded in capturing in sculptural form something of the life and community of the South Bronx, where he lives and works. His approach in the work to issues of race is humanistic rather than statistical, although inevitably his efforts are sometimes seen as controversial.
Ahearn produces plaster life-casts of local residents who were willing to go through the ordeal. Some of the pieces on view here are fiberglass and resin casts, a technique that seems to allow him greater freedom and more complex compositions, such as in two freestanding pieces, that are the show's knockouts.
The sculptures are often brightly painted, and a number of works in this show are excellent examples of Ahearn's lively, almost expressionist painting style. East 100 Street, for instance, is an elaborate and colorful composition in which a mischievous but adorable black boy is being chased by his guardian, an older Hispanic-looking blond woman whose body is covered with tattoos.
One of the most moving pieces, and perhaps the best on view, is Edwin with Cinderblock, a relatively simple composition of a young boy lifting a cinder block. The piece has impact well beyond its modest theme -- in fact, it carries a mythological reference and resonance. The boy, just barely old enough to lift the heavy object, could be seen as a kind of inner-city Atlas holding up the weight of the world.
Also in the show are Ahearn's unpainted compositions of cement casts of arms and hands, one of which is in a circular arrangement on a round table. Not as striking as the figure pieces, these more abstract experiments show the artist branching out into new territory. They recall Bruce Nauman's recent metal casts of hands, but Ahearn probably has a vastly different agenda in mind. It is fascinating to ponder for the moment where these pieces might lead.
John Ahearn, Sept. 12-Oct. 24, 1998, at Alexander and Bonin, 132 Tenth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10011.