Pepón Osorio takes on weighty subjects—racial and class stereotyping, identity politics and its bitter aftershocks, the ever more elusive American Dream, mass incarceration, and the right to a solid education and a sound health care system—but he deals with these themes in sculptures and installations that are often ravishing, poetic, ebullient, exhilarating, funny, and very unexpected. His work often focuses on the Latinx community (he was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and lives and works in Philadelphia), and thus on traditions, aesthetics, and ambitions that are still less normative within North American museums.
“My Beating Heart/Mi corazón latiente (on view through September 17, 2023), surveys 30 years’ worth of Osorio’s work, beginning with Scene of the Crime (Whose Crime?) commissioned for the 1993 Whitney Biennial. The exhibition not only explores his themes in depth, but also his practice. Using a plethora of ready-made objects, Osorio introduces multifarious forms, colors, patterns, and textures to create lush, dense, and vivid (mostly) Latinx interiors and mixed-media constructions that can be moved (like carts, Convalescence, 2023) or erected outdoors (like monuments, Lonely Soul, 2008), though they are installed inside. In the minimally severe, white-cube setting of the New Museum, his polychrome symphonies strike a strident chord—an ode to joy, a plangent lament, or something in between—by rubbing against blank surroundings that aim for neutrality.
Such lack of decorum, such “desecration” of a supposedly hallowed space in which (architecturally speaking) less is more, makes his over-the-top, borderline scandalous visual and tactile explosions ever more effective in their provocation, as they lead us into the minefield of taste. What constitutes “good” taste versus kitsch? Who gets to decide, what criteria are used to make these decisions, and why? These questions are all about power. Osorio takes on received cultural heritage (tradition, and thus time), but his fictions inspired by reality are very much of our moment, though they are marginalized in many places by dominant white, mostly heterosexual Western European-centric Christian values.
Entering the exhibition, viewers find themselves in a make-believe classroom (ReForm, 2014–17) consisting of objects removed from Fairhill Elementary, one of 24 Philadelphia schools that were shuttered in 2013 in the wake of major funding cuts. Education, as we know, is central to success in a knowledge-based economy. When public education is treated as an economic burden or political threat, entire communities are disenfranchised. ReForm is a moving, thoughtful environment, with blown-up student essays (annotated in red) plastered onto the walls and small monitors featuring videos of students who share their stories.
Next comes an extraordinarily ornate simulacrum of a Latino barbershop interior (No Crying Allowed in the Barbershop, 1994), with hubcaps aligned on the wall above photographs of male role models. This delirious work was originally featured in an abandoned barbershop in a working-class Puerto Rican neighborhood of Hartford, Connecticut. Osorio interprets such environments as places where ideas about masculinity can be engaged and changed to break cycles of violence.
Crime is dealt with overtly in two other works seen from the outside, including the gripping Badge of Honor (1995), in which an empty prison cell, tellingly minimal in its austerity, is placed on the other side of a bedroom wall in which the inmate’s (absent) son seeks refuge among a visually congesting surfeit of things connected to sports, popular culture, and the illusion of a life of plenty. Osorio developed this work in consultation with an incarcerated man and his 15-year-old son, who conduct a conversation touching on loss and obligations in their separate (fictive) spaces, via video projections.
Osorio’s politically engaged trompe-l’oeil environments hit the nail squarely on the head. They remind us of the importance of things as vessels for memories, sentiments, and ideals. Things can become a part of us, extensions of the self, providing a sense of security and an idea of how we see ourselves. They can also become limitations. Osorio’s installations reach beyond what we think we know to argue for a diversity of outlook, eclecticism, and cosmopolitanism, which open us up to a wider world of sensations, emotions, and ideas and make us all the richer and stronger. Seeing what lies on the other side helps us to make sense of our own cultural, social, and political values and preferences, and why they matter to us, thereby enabling us to discover more about ourselves and making us more empathetic toward our fellow human beings.