Bronx Tales

Of the many artists who came to stay, two stand out: Camilo Jose Vergara as a revelation, and John Ahearn as a warning.

Vergara, who maybe should be given a MacArthur for his work, is less an artist than he is a kind of time-lapse documentarian who photographs the same location, sometimes over the course of 20 years. The first image in one sequence (taken along Charlotte Street and Boston Road in the Bronx, between 1980 and 1994), is a bombed out, Berlin-like intersection—a shambles. Next, in 1985, new ticky-tacky suburban tract houses are being built. Initially you think, "Oh no, not this!" Then, in 1989, the houses are complete and people move in. By 1994, the wretchedness is gone, and these strange houses have been turned into a lovely neighborhood. Campers, decks, and swimming pools dot back yards; trees, lawns, and life have returned.

The other story is not so happy. John Ahearn moved to the Bronx in the early '80s. Teaming up with Rigoberto Torres, a neighborhood resident, the pair made hundreds of painted plaster casts of local characters. I've never been a fan, but the work has an idiosyncratic integrity and a warm roughness. In 1986, Ahearn (working alone) received a city commission to make three bronzes. In 1991, he installed three outdoor sculptures: one of a boy with a boombox, another, a girl on roller skates, and Raymond, kneeling beside his pit bull. Depending on how you look at it, the rest is history, farce, or tragedy.


'Urban Mythologies: The Bronx Represented Since the 1960s'
The Bronx Museum of the Arts
Through September 5

The entire narrative of the Bronx echoes in Ahearn's story. Immediately after the unveiling, protests began. The sculpture (especially Raymond) was branded as offensive, and Ahearn was cast as an outsider. One civic official chided, "He's not of the community because he's not black...." Ahearn, who had lived and worked here for nearly his entire adult life was shaken. He tried to reason, but to no avail. Giving up, he paid to have the statues removed, and soon after, left the Bronx. The three pedestals remain empty. So continues this Bronx tale.

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