‘Over time you become family’: the intimacy of lifecasting

In 1979, sculptor John Ahearn began making lifecasts in the display window of Fashion Moda, a celebrated interdisciplinary arts space in the Bronx that operated from 1978 to 1993. Lifecasting is a strange and fascinating artistic process that generates sculptures by putting molds onto live subjects, and Ahearn’s public displays of it quickly caused a stir. “It was a wonderful experience I had with people walking in and taking an interest in the process,” recalled Ahearn.

One of the people who became intrigued by Ahearn’s lifecasting was a taxi driver named Wally, who went home and told his family about what he had seen. Eventually word got around to Wally’s cousin, Rigoberto, who at that time was a 17-year-old who worked at his uncle’s religious statuary factory. When Ahearn met Rigoberto that day, it was the beginning of a lifelong, extraordinarily fruitful artistic collaboration.

“I had a very strong sense when I met Rigoberto that he was not like anyone else I had met in the Bronx so far,” said Ahearn. “I knew him and trusted him. I felt like this within moments of getting to know each other. Rigoberto understood lifecasting and sharing it with others. He brought materials back to his neighborhood and began doing lifecasting in the way that we were doing it at Fashion Moda.”

That young man, whose full name is Rigoberto Torres, went on to become a canonized creator of sculptures that reflected and celebrated life in his Bronx neighborhood, working alongside Ahearn for decades. Torres explained that, at the time, he had no idea he was embarking on a lifelong artistic path. “I was just looking for something that I could do instead of working in a factory, which wasn’t satisfying,” he said. “I enjoyed meeting the people I lifecasted – it’s complicated at first, but then over time you become family.”

In Swagger and Tenderness: The South Bronx Portraits by John Ahearn and Rigoberto Torres, the Bronx Museum of the Arts celebrates the 40-year collaboration between Ahearn and Torres with a major survey of their work together, exhibiting some 65 pieces in the community whose diverse personalities, professions and cultures were the very basis for these sculptures. The show, which runs from 26 October until April 2023, and includes archival images and ephemera, is the first major retrospective of the duo’s artistic collaboration since 1991.

Lifecasting is a very personal, involved means of creating highly realistic sculptures that involves applying molding material to the body of an artist’s living, breathing subject. Once the mold solidifies and establishes its shape, it is carefully removed, leaving behind an amazingly realistic copy of its subject. Lifecasting requires that subjects remain very still throughout the process, and it involves large amounts of trust – for instance, when lifecasting faces, it’s essential to use straws so that subjects are able to continue breathing. Because it is such an intimate method, it allows for a unique kind of relationship between an artist and their model, which is reflected in the character of the resultant work. “It takes a while to explain it to people and to get them to understand what it is,” said Torres. “It’s a challenge to make sure that our subjects don’t feel nervous or shake.”

Because of the immediacy that lifeasting can offer, Ahearn compared it to on-the-spot street photography. “When I first started lifecasting,” explained Ahearn, “I thought of it as like a Polaroid. It was very present, very direct and quick. You put the material down and pull it off, and the sculpture is there, and it’s practically already made. It seemed more popular and direct as a way of making something.”

Befitting a popular artform more like Polaroid photography than fine art statuary, the works exhibited in Swagger and Tenderness feel friendly, easy to connect with, and very reflective of the stories of the Bronx community as a whole, showcasing the everyday presence that forms the texture of life in the Bronx. Among the pieces in Swagger and Tenderness are Ahearn and Torres’s lifecast of a man towering over his 80s-style boom box, a graffiti artist in a black hoodie and gas mask, arms encircling dozens of canisters of spray paint, two women embracing in a warm hug, and a man crouching behind his proud pet dog.

Because these sculptures are by and for the Bronx community, curators Amy Rosenblum-Martín and Ron Kavanaugh have taken care to create an experience that truly invites the community in and offers a space where they can linger and feel at home. Meant to epitomize the feeling of the neighborhood surrounding it, the exhibit even has dedicated tables where museum-goers can play a game of skelzies or dominoes while taking a break from investigating the artwork. “The exhibition aims to amplify John and Rigoberto’s radical love for all Bronxites,” said Rosenblum-Martín. “It’s definitely working against a white-box aesthetic and working toward the kind of architectural aesthetic that you see in the buildings in the community around the museum. We’re designing seating areas where people feel encouraged to bring their whole extended family and friends and sit and play for a while.”

Kavanaugh has overseen the creating of the exhibition catalogue, which strives to represent numerous voices from the Bronx in a variety of ways. Among those is the inclusion of a graphic novel written by Kavanaugh and illustrated by Bronx artist Sole Rebel, which features a young heroine from the Bronx and in which Ahearn and Torres play a crucial role.

Remarking on the inspiration behind his graphic novel and the exhibition as a whole, Kavanaugh stated: “it’s important now to have heroes. I’ve looked at John and Rigo as that. They’ve both gone into the community to engage people – it takes courage to set up outside and invite your neighbors to be a part of your art project. I could not imagine participating in something like [lifecasting] voluntarily. For John and Rigo to get people to come outside their homes, cover their faces in plastic, and participate, that’s heroic in a different way.”

Reflective of the many warm relationships that Ahearn and Torres have built throughout their decades of creation, Swagger and Tenderness offers a sense of exuberance and positive energy that reflect what community is all about. “It’s a joy to make people happy and to see the expression on their face when I do this,” said Torres. That sense of happiness and social cohesion is precisely what makes this a compelling exhibition that should be experienced.

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