Art Review: Where the real becomes the fantastic

Published: Sunday, November 14, 2010, 8:04 AM

By Dan Bischoff/For the star-ledger

The great thing about realism is that it is what it is — nothing fancy, nothing clever, just a reminder and a request that we think a little more consistently about what and who we are. So seeing in Aljira’s Broad Street window the life-size, reasonably realistic fiberglass sculpture “The Rat Catchers,” which shows two African-American boys holding broom handles over a half-dozen dead rodents, ought to make you smile.

“The Rat Catchers” is by sculptor John Ahearn and his longtime collaborator Rigoberto Torres, who run a studio in the South Bronx that makes art out of all the people in their neighborhood. They’ve been pretty well-known since the early 1980s, using a method of life-casting pioneered by New Jersey’s late George Segal, but deployed in an even more deliberately democratic way than the great humanist himself did. Ahearn and Torres don’t leave their casts a ghostly, aesthetic white, like refugees from an existential art collection, but paint them as best they can naturalistically, so they really look like totems from everyday life. And life, common, everyday life, is a comedy, so we smile.

In fact, all three new shows this fall at Aljira are about the junction of real life and false art, and all three mean to make you smile. “. . . And Then Some,” which occupies the middle gallery at Aljira, is an installation by the Arab-American Dahlia Elsayed, who labels painted maps with words that seem to describe internalized boundaries, or perhaps document her family’s three generations of moving from continent to continent to escape religious and political persecution — it kind of depends on how you look at them. And Jen Mazza, formerly a painter in residence at the Newark Museum, has filled the last gallery with a very delicate homage to the hoary tradition of floral still-lifes, “The Hothouse,” that makes you want to drift away in a fantasy of time.

It’s the life-size sculptures, curated by Aljira Emerge (the gallery’s independent career-counseling program) grad Jayson Keeling, that will draw visitors into the gallery. Ahearn began as a painter, and several of his drawings of the people in these sculptures, which are very fine, are distributed throughout the gallery. The drawings are strict with line, reminiscent of Ingres’ Italian pencil portraits or, more likely, the early David Hockney portraits of friends and patrons (which were also in pencil, or etched). Very spare, yet highly realistic in their treatment.

Torres, who was then working as an assistant to Ahearn, had the idea to make the plaster reliefs, and together they learned to make the free-standing sculptures. Of course, what’s remarkable about pieces like “The Rat Catchers” (1986), “Corey” (1998) or “Veronica and Her Mother” (1988, the last two made entirely of painted plaster) is seeing realism, usually deployed to depict Roman emperors or titans of industry, devoted to folks who live and work in the South Bronx.

Keeling has included never-before-seen video of Ahearn and Torres in their cheerfully chaotic studio, where they work with local kids making the sculptures. It’s this process — an urban studio filled with area people, coming together to make art that celebrates themselves and where they live — that has always set Ahearn and Torres apart. But its their ambition that has led them to make pieces like “Burnt Back to School” (1985), a wall-sized relief with four figures, two actual salvaged windows, and a presence that hints at a public commission — and indeed, both Ahearn and Torres have been preoccupied by commissions for the past several years.

Elsayed, who lives and works in New Jersey, is a verbal artist, and some of the works in “. . . And Then Some” are nothing but words printed on banners, like “Humbling Moment” or “Valhalla.” The title of this show places it in sequence with “All of it . . .” — an exhibition during Newark’s recent Open Doors studio tour in which Elsayed went through and edited over a hundred works made over the past decade for display in the nearby Gallery Aferro.

You can see why the New Yorker has run some of Elsayed’s work when you see two peninsulas, each indicated by boundary lines and stippled interiors, one labeled “Hither” and the other “Yon.” It’s a dry wit that animates Elsayed, but there’s a conscience at work too — one painting seems to be of ice floes in blue water, each white chunk labeled either “fish tacos,” “general chaos” or “heat waves.” Like Ahearn and Torres, Elsayed thinks a great deal about place and how it shapes life, but she’s also very aware of how boundaries define two or more states. She will participate in the upcoming 12th Cairo Biennale.

Jen Mazza is an Emerge graduate herself (and a longtime Newark resident, though at this time she’s living in New York), who’s best known for her tiny (some no more than 6-by-6-inch) paintings of cropped anatomical details done in a richly allusive, almost 17th-century Dutch technique. But here she is doing something very different. Mazza has inscribed her gallery with thin neoclassical moldings (done in graphite right on the wall) and hung eight realistic oils of flower still-lifes, resembling the exquisite still-lifes of Emile Bernard, Vincent Van Gogh’s friend and frequent correspondent. And on one wall she is projecting (with the help of a rattling old 16mm projector) a wavering image of a Van Gogh flower painting, as if deliberately reminding us that her style is a throwback to old-timey ideas about art.

Funny how, when the future looks bleak, futurism itself wanes. But you only have to see “Wilted Yellow Roses” or the drawing “Thistle” (both 2010) to want to be in “The Hothouse” with them. Right about now, comfort is worth a smile.

Fall Exhibitions — Automatic for the People: John Ahearn and Rigoberto Torres; . . . And Then Some, by Dahlia Elsayed; The Hothouse, by Jen Mazza

Where: Aljira, A Center for Contemporary Art, 591 Broad St., Newark

When: Through Jan. 8. Open Wednesday-Friday, noon-6 p.m., and Saturday, 11 a.m.-4 p.m.

How much: Adults $3, seniors and students $2, children younger than 12 free. For more information call, (973) 622-1600 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting (973) 622-1600 end_of_the_skype_highlighting or see

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