CASTING ASPERSIONS

Children as young as 6 or 7 routinely sit through the procedure, as did one 7-year-old named Thea during a workshop Ahearn has been conducting at the Boys and Girls' Club of Tempe in conjunction with the ASU show.

"Slowly, we were able to cast younger kids," said Ahearn, "but when Robert did one of his 2-year-old daughter [who appears as a floating mermaid in the show], he just left me in the dust . . . this is out of my range. I wouldn't even know where to start." (Torres' secret was to cast the baby in sections, while family members held and distracted her.) Busts, as well as full figures, of parents, lovers, shopkeepers, children playing or mugging, and other neighborhood fixtures have been used by Ahearn and Torres to create three-dimensional murals on building walls throughout the South Bronx; creating the murals draws as big a crowd as the individual casting does. For almost 15 years, Ahearn and Torres have been known and respected in both the often fickle art world and their own South Bronx neighborhood. Both equally respect the neighborhood. But that didn't seem to prevent Ahearn from becoming an unwitting sacrificial lamb on the altar of misguided multiculturalism and political correctness two years ago. In the face of charges that they had used racist stereotyping and portrayed negative role models, leveled by two vocal members of New York's black community (who, interestingly enough, did not even live in the South Bronx) and other residents of the neighborhood, Ahearn removed three bronze statues he had done of neighborhood people. He removed them only three days after they had been set in place in a traffic triangle in front of the South Bronx's 44th Precinct police station. Long before they were ever put on their pedestals, the bronzes (including "Raymond and Toby," a fiber-glass cast of which can be seen in the museum's show) had been commissioned, approved and funded by the Percent for Art Program of the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs.

Ahearn still appears hurt when he speaks of the incident, during which the artist was criticized for making Raymond, who, in fact, has a problem with drugs, look like a drug dealer by casting him in a hooded sweat shirt, part of some unspoken uniform code of drug dealers in the South Bronx.

"The statues lacked any semblance of idealism. People felt either I was making a joke of somebody or maybe just promoting stereotypes," Ahearn said.

"What's politically correct to one person is incorrect to someone else," said Ahearn. "If you're not used to seeing [the statues], they could be shocking. These were up on pedestals looking down. I think a lot of the neighborhood wasn't really ready for this. . . . In retrospect, I made a mistake in what I had done; not only was it not working, but it threatened to erupt into a really bad scandal. What could have happened didn't happen because it was nipped in the bud. . . . [T]he media would have jumped on it; I didn't want to test the waters to see what would happen." John Ahearn is now at a crossroads in his career as a result of the controversy. "When I knew a lot of people there and was happy about work, the block struck me as being the center of the universe," he said. "It was the most wonderful spot on Earth with the warmest, nicest people and more activity going on than anywhere else . . . I thought it seemed very special--special for me to be there. . . ." Now he doesn't know whether he will continue to live there.

Robert Torres has long since moved from the neighborhood he grew up in; last December, he suffered a severe asthma attack, which has temporarily left him with double vision, blinding headaches and memory loss, conditions that make it hard for him to work.

And the neighborhood from which both artists drew their inspiration? It's pretty much the same. The only thing different is the absence of three powerful bronze statues of real people who, like it or not, live there.

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