John Ahearn / Martha Cooper
Dorian Grey Gallery
By JEFFREY CYPHERS WRIGHT, JAN. 2016
The line between documentation and fine art is difficult for some to reconcile. Sebastian Salgado, perhaps our best known living photographer, resolutely claimed to be only a documentary shooter until he was persuaded to show his work in an “art” museum.
However, that line separating the two proves to be extremely fertile ground in this historic show at Dorian Grey Gallery in the East Village. The gallery brought John Ahearn and Martha Cooper together to celebrate their work, their collaborations and the commonality of their vision.
Cooper found inspiration in the people of the Lower East Side. In the 70s, she took black and white photographs of children and adolescents in a decimated urban landscape. Other series of her street photography included hip hop, “B*Girlz” and graffiti. She recently co-authored (with Henry Chalfont) Subway Art: 25th Anniversary.
Looking at Cooper’s black and white scenes of spunky kids inventing their own worlds, one is struck by their candor, beauty and desperation. Illuminated by an indomitable human spirit, the faces of these youngsters defy their grim surroundings of rubble, empty liquor bottles and garbage. The children have formed impromptu unions in their fields of play.
The very act of taking these photos provides some justice in the world. But these portraits go further and compare favorably with the great unposed childhood photos of Helen Levin.
Likewise, the work of John Ahearn focuses on an often overlooked and underprivileged community. In the 80s, Ahearn, with a long-time collaborator Rigoberto Torres, did life castings of people in Walton Avenue section of the Bronx.
Six of these life-sized, 3D wall reliefs of young people are hung at eye level. Beautifully painted, they bear a spiritual, iconic bearing. Each one exudes personality and mystery, projecting an uncanny presence.
In 2008, at a block party on Walton Avenue, many of Ahearn’s early pieces were mounted. Cooper was present to capture the afternoon and some of the original subjects all these years later. To use parlance from the milieu, this show was “da bomb.” This is art that tells it like it is — and it’s uplifting. WM
Wright is best known as a poet. His 12th book, Triple Crown, is out from Spuyten Duyvil. He studied with Allen Ginsberg at Brooklyn College and with Ted Berrigan and Alice Notley at St. Mark's Chirch in-the-Bowery. He's performed in two Museum of Modern Art's poetry series, hosted poetry events at the Bowery Poetry Club, La Mama, KGB and many other village venues. Critical writing has appeared in Artnews, Chelsea Now, Art and Antiques. He reviews regularly for ArtNexus and The Brooklyn Rail. A long -time publisher, Wright currently produces an art and poetry showcase called Live Mag!. He lives and works in the East Village.view all articles from this author