The Works of Rigoberto Torres

Introduction by Susan Hoeltzel

Images from Exhibition




Grace Under Pressure
by Dan Cameron

Shorty Working in the C & R Statuary Corp., 1985
acrylic on plaster, 27" x 22" x 18"

Every artist's work is about time, place and circumstance, but in Rigoberto Torres' case, the fervor with which he embraces all three factors lends the work a directness and intensity that is extremely rare in the contemporary art world. In particular, the artist's close interrelationship with his subjects makes his output appear especially personal. By his drawing from the presence of neighbors, friends and family for his subjects, the world described in Torres' art functions as a close parallel to the world in which he lives and works on a day-to-day basis. For viewers who may not be personally familiar with that world, Torres' sculpture provides a means of coming into intimate contact with a social milieu that is both vivid and moving, and which literally overflows with the richness of gesture and character that belongs to his subjects.

The circumstances surrounding Torres' fifteen-year evolution as a fine artist provide some degree of insight into the meanings found in his work. Born in a small town in Puerto Rico, his family moved to New York when he was four, and he grew up in the same South Bronx neighborhood where most of his work has been created. Although outgoing and energetic, Torres has had an asthmatic condition since childhood that resulted in him spending a great deal of his free time as a youth tinkering with cars, "inventing things," and helping his uncle Raul Arce at the family's religious art factory. In 1979, shortly after artists Stefan Eins and Joe Lewis established Fashion Moda as the downtown avant-garde's outpost in the South Bronx, a cousin of Torres was driving by the storefront, looked in and saw the plaster heads that artist John Ahearn was making of friends and acquaintances, and mentioned it to Rigoberto. Within a very short time, the 18 year-old had introduced himself to Ahearn and was coming by Fashion Moda on a daily basis. His first heads were cast there, using Ahearn's technique of pouring plastic gel over the subject's face (straws were inserted in their noses so that they could breathe), then lifting the dried impression off to use as a mold. In fact both artists cast each other's faces that first year, a symbolic beginning to the long-term collaboration which is still evident in each of their respective approaches to making art.

However, since the story behind this work is generally told with Ahearn as the principal figure, it is important to emphasize in the present version that while the older artist spent much of the '80s making art that concerned itself to a measurable degree with his own assimilation into a cultural situation that was new, even exotic, for him, Torres took the techniques and opportunities being offered by his partnership, and used them to define his ongoing life and situation. There was no need to go looking for subject matter, because it literally waited in his own backyard. Two factors in the development of both artists' work at this period make the complexities of their resultant interrelationship clear. One is the early and critical role played by Rigoberto's uncle Raul Arce's statuary factory in developing the more sophisticated molding process required to make multiple casts of his and Ahearn's subjects. The other was the decision, made largely by Torres, to move the operation out of the Fashion Moda storefront, where people typically dropped in on their way to and from work or chores like shopping, and set up their studio on Walton Avenue, in the heart of his own South Bronx neighborhood, where everybody knows everybody else and their business. To a significant degree, his being able to work amidst family, friends and neighbors meant that Torres also functioned for many years as Ahearn's double in the close knit neighborhood, enabling the latter to bypass many of the cultural and linguistic barriers that invariably came up in his interactions with people. Certainly, the major outdoor groupings produced during this period—'Banana' Kelly Double Dutch (1981-82), We are Family (1981-82), Life on Dawson Street (1982-83), and Back to School (1985)— are collaborations in every sense of the word. But to an extent that has only become a bit clearer over time, the fact that neither Ahearn's nor Torres' work would have been possible without each one's chance discovery of and eventual reliance on the other takes on quite different connotations depending on which of the two artists' work one is considering.

The sense of intimacy with his sitters that marks Torres' work as a whole is evident even in Shirley (1979), the earliest piece in the present exhibition. Unlike the more dramatic expressions favored by Ahearn at this time, the personality that emerges in this work may be subdued, even reticent, but there is an almost sly self-assertiveness in its subject's direct gaze and quiet smile. Despite its slightly blocky symmetry and frontally, the piece works because of the easy identification which its maker has with the young woman posing for him. The same observation holds true for Girl with Red Halter (1982-83), in which the downward cast of the chin and the subject's folded arms accentuate, rather than detract from, the glow of budding sexuality radiating from her skin, hair and clothing. This seemingly effortless gift for reflecting the sitter's persona can be seen to more powerful effect in important works from twelve years later, like Torres' reverential treatment of the singer Ruth Fernandez in performance, or in the tower of jostling young boys that makes up Julio, Jose, Junito (both works 1991). Because he so clearly identifies with his subjects, Torres never imposes on them to represent anything other than themselves, and this license results in the marked ease with which they slip into their 'real' selves as they are being cast. In fact, even the principal room of the Lehman College Art Gallery, which is devoted to Torres' treatments of children, serves as testimony to the artist's remarkable ability to work with subjects as young as two years old—not an age typified by the ability to stand absolutely still while plastic gel is poured over one's face, hair, and throat!

Another characteristic of Rigoberto Torres' work from the early '80s is his instinctive drive to create tableaux from single figures. Even in a formative piece like his bust of the magician Manny ( 1982-83), the artist uses the prop of the sword being swallowed to extend the figure out from the limits of the body and into open space. The upward tilt of the conjurer's arm and upper body, contrasted with the downward arc of the sword as it enters his mouth, achieves both a narrative tension as well as a compositional complexity that comes from the space around the relief being activated by the unexpectedly dynamic twist of the body's contours. The bodybuilder's arms held proudly aloft in Dixie (1982-83) achieve the same effect, albeit more simply; there may not be a prop in sight, but the naturalness of the gesture and facial expression suggest the countless hours the subject has spent working with those arms and shoulders to achieve the mass of muscle of which he is so proud. But as in Manny the primary compositional effect created by this gesture is to activate the space around the figure, so that it reads less as a static form and more as a living character pulling himself out of his environment and into the viewer's close proximity.

In a more literal way, the creation of a tableau-like setting becomes key to the success of the two most ambitious works from this period: Tito Gonzalez (1983) and Shorty Working at the C & R Statuary Corp. (1985). Both works use either family models or settings (or both), and each represents an almost devotional attitude towards the subject of work. It is not so much that Torres' subjects are defined by what they do, but rather they are so engaged by their activity that they seem to physically bond with their setting to form a single, complex unit The way Tito, the liquor store proprietor, places his hands palms down with fingers open on the counter's surface gives the viewer an impression of solidness and dependability, which is in turn echoed by the neatly arranged wall of liquor bottles behind him. At the same time, the roundness of his frame and his almost deferential gaze suggests an inner equilibrium that is in marked contrast to more typical depictions of the occupation he is meant to be representing. Shorty Working at the C & R Statuary Corp. is an even more painstaking rendering of the work being done in his uncle Raul Arce's statue factory. While Torres' interest is in showing the loving attention that goes into the detailing of the religious figures that his uncle's factory produces, it is also a metaphorical self-portrait, in which the labors of the artist/artisan are used to suggest a kind of exemplary life that is a carefully achieved balance of action and contemplation. However, we do not need such a complex interpretation to appreciate the strong visual contrast between Shorty's somewhat imposing masculinity, complete with tattooed arms, and the almost serene care with which he treats the archetypal Virgin in his hands.

At first glance, it would seem that the more outgoing, genre-like aspects of Orlando the Donut Man (1987) form a stark contrast with these earlier, more introspective works. Indeed, it is probably to pieces like these that other writers are referring when they bring up the 'carnival' aspects of Torres' style. However, such descriptions are guilty of oversimplifying what is in reality a subtle form of symbiosis taking place between the artist and his models. Even though it is clear that in more recent years Torres has been drawn to situations in which a sensation of well-being, even wonderment, is generated by the comportment of his figures, it would be a mistake to think of any of his more recent output in terms of an approach that is somehow frivolous or less meaningful to him. On the contrary, circumstances over the past year or so have conspired to make Torres' personal philosophy towards life and art much clearer, and the optimism of a work like Orlando the Donut Man seems almost poignant when one considers the circumstance that its quasi-heroic subject, who was once memorialized in a photo posing self-consciously alongside his sculptural likeness, is no longer the donut vendor at the legendary Munch Time Restaurant. Suddenly, the passing of time and the changeability of things provides that ingredient of melancholy which Torres' work is sometimes perceived as lacking. The sculpture Orlando the Donut Man thus becomes in part a legitimization of memory for those persons whose lives he may have touched, for whom the character of the donut man will always be irreplaceable.

It is also possible that the issue of mortality seems to hover covertly around these pieces due to the artist's own recent brush with death. During the summer and fall of 1993, he and Ahearn worked together on an extended casting project at a storefront on 42nd Street, within striking distance of the spot where, fourteen years before, the world south of the Bronx first became exposed to their work, as part of the historic Times Square Show (which Ahearn co-organized). While initially reluctant to go back over what each perceived as well-explored territory, both artists were notably revitalized by the process of interacting with groups of people in a largely public setting. However, as the project was drawing to a close, Torres, who has had a respiratory condition his entire life, was unexpectedly struck, in close succession, by two asthmatic seizures whose intensity eclipsed anything that he had ever experienced before. The second seizure, which was treated at a hospital where the staff was unfamiliar with his medical history, caused cortex damage that resulted in (temporary) loss of sight, as well as severe memory loss and vision problems from which he is still recovering more than a year later. Although a full recovery is expected, and some works have actually been completed by him for the present exhibition, as of this writing Torres is able to work on his art only for brief stretches at a time.

Needless to say, if it is an appreciation for the precariousness of life that one is seeking, Torres' work can be surprisingly eloquent. This is not only true in a somewhat melodramatic work like The Rescue (1993), in which a fireman, framed by the pillars of an 'old-law' tenement, risks his life to save the child who is cradled in his arms. It is also present in an unexpectedly moving work like Margaret and Edwin (1992), which frames its female protagonist's pregnancy with both the tender embrace of her husband's arms and a corny maternity T-shirt emblazoned with the word "Baby" and an arrow pointing to her womb. In Margaret and Jill (also 1992), the embrace between two adult women, one white and one black, seems to affirm the fragility which accompanies all gestures of love in a frequently hostile and intolerant society. Even in Torres' single-sitter portraits, of which there are nearly ten included here, one gets the sensation that the artist has zeroed in on the essential qualities that most define the person he is casting. This is as true in the warlike grimace of Mabrick (1984) or the cockiness of The Man in Mexico ( 1986) as it is in the proud upward thrust of Julissa's chin (1990) or Margaret's quizzical tilt of the head (1992). The spark that sustains each personality is conveyed by the intimacy which Torres creates between himself and the people who quite literally mean the most to him.

In his full-standing figures like Ruth Fernandez (1991) and Maria (1993), the close-up point of view that Torres favors takes on a different level of intensity. The performing self is what seems to interest him the most, as in the climactic moment when the singer, eyes closed, gestures outward to the crowd. It could be the split second just after Fernandez has finished her last note, and before she is enveloped in applause. The latter work, by contrast, shows the moment of concentration just before a gymnast or dancer leaps into her routine. These works are closely related to the two most recent ensemble works in Torres' oeuvre, and which could easily be considered the highlight of the exhibition: Magic Kids (1992) and The Boxing Match (1993). Each of these pieces takes up the theme of children assuming adult roles, in a way that is both endearing and also a bit unsettling. In the earlier piece, the diminutive magician, saw in hand, has just finished cutting his assistant in half. Her hair cascades to the floor as he looks out at us hesitantly, as if unsure whether to expect applause or a scolding. In the more recent ensemble, two young pugilists are seated on stools at opposite ends of the ring, as the bikini-clad announcer holds up a card to announce the next round. Although Torres' precise intentions in these works are hard to decipher, it seems that he is trying to combine an oblique commentary on gender-based roles with a wry awareness that nowadays kids are being forced to assume the responsibilities of adulthood at a much younger age than ever before.

Although one would be hard pressed to try and paraphrase these ensembles through purely linguistic means, one point seems clear: Torres himself means to hold on to the principles of childhood as long as he can, even if it means creating a form of parody of the adult world for his characters (and audience) to inhabit. In fact, one of the common threads that runs through all of his output is the idea that Torres wants to sustain his own sense of amazement concerning the world and the people around him. Most of the time, this engagement can be felt in the way that Torres creates an uncanny sense of his sitter's identity through the most direct means possible. But even when some of his larger works reveal an emergent theatricality, the dignity of each participant is beyond questioning. Torres may be recreating his world as a way of coming to terms with forces that rage all around him but in so doing he also builds a convincing case for identity being based on the place we occupy in the world-view of those around us. Sooner or later in one form or another, everyone learns to struggle for his or her survival; but it is usually during those moments in between—moments of contemplation, celebration or love—when the people who we really are finally catch up with us.