TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT January 1992

PEPÓN OSORIO'S PLASTIC HEAVEN

WHEN YOU LOOK UP at Pepón Osorio’s El Chandelier (The chandelier, 1988), you can hardly believe your eyes. It’s a chandelier all right, but decorated with a thousand tiny knickknacks. There are toy cars and squirt guns, dominoes and swans, plastic saints, plastic lepers, plastic rhinos and giraffes and monkeys. The light bulbs are surrounded with little plastic palm trees and set in golden cups from which kewpie dolls peep out, some in turbans, some in straw hats. On every perch there hover little white doves, little brown ballerinas. From every arm of the chandelier plastic babies dangle, wrapped in white blankets and tied with ribbons, some pink, some blue. Looping from arm to arm are swags of pearls, cascades of fringe. And sticking out here and there—pièce de résistance—are plastic fingernail extenders, disembodied fingertips with scarlet nails, simultaneously pointing at and beckoning to you.

The fact that this amazing thing hangs above you makes it all the more marvelous. You look up at it as if to a Tiepolo ceiling, with wave upon wave of angels and saints, all sitting on their cloudbanks, having a good time, promising you that there is a heaven. Osorio’s chandelier may be a knickknack heaven, but it is dazzling in the same way as a Tiepolo. Osorio is Puerto Rican, and this is a Puerto Rican paradise.

The pop richness of El Chandelier could be seen in almost every work in Osorio’s recent retrospective at El Museo del Barrio in New York. The show was called “Con To’ los Hierros,” which roughly translates as “Giving it all you’ve got,” and that is Osorio’s philosophy. “More is better,” as he says in the interview included in the catalogue.1 But as you move from piece to piece, the meanings of plenitude deepen; the geyser becomes a well.

The most thrilling piece in the show, La Cama (The bed, 1987), was an installation featuring a fantastically elaborate four-poster bed. Each of the bedposts is painted a different color—green, purple, red, orange—and studded with the same kind of gimcrack treasures that adorn the chandelier: combs, pearls, zircons, decals of chickens and fairies. But this is a serious bed, an eschatological bed. Wrapped around its footboard is a huge plastic serpent, the devil. Atop one of the posters, a death’s-head bride and groom are frying an egg. To counteract these evil spirits, there are doves and angels everywhere. The pillows are covered with saints’ medallions. Most amazing of all, the entire surface of the bedspread is covered with capias, Puerto Rican party favors: little rosettes of lace with ribbons printed in gold, saying things like “Happy Birthday Jay and El Baron” and “Cookie’s Baby Shower.”

So this is the bed of birth, marriage, and death. It has a personal meaning for Osorio. When he was a child, his family had a housekeeper, Juana Hernández, who was a second mother to him. (His mother worked.) Juana was an orphan, very poor, very religious. She went barefoot, but wore as many earrings as her ears could accommodate. As a boy, Osorio used to sneak into her bedroom and rummage through her drawers, poring over the earrings, necklaces, rouge pots, and religious medals that constituted a poor woman’s treasure (and that probably inspired, in some measure, Osorio’s art).

Juana died in 1982, seven years after Osorio left Puerto Rico for New York. In 1987 he made La Cama as a tribute to her. On the baseboard of the room in which the bed stands he has written a description of a dream in which he visits Juana on her deathbed and tries, haltingly, to tell her about his fiancée. That fiancée was real: Merián Soto, a choreographer and performance artist, also Puerto Rican, whom Osorio met in New York in 1978, collaborated with on a number of projects, and married in the same year that he made La Cama. The headboard of the bed consists of a large photograph of Soto, aged maybe eight, in a tutu and tiara, obviously at a dance recital. (As accompaniment for her childhood dream, each of the bedposts is topped by a music box that plays Tchaikovsky’s music for Swan Lake.) Her photo is framed in a golden sunburst. On the opposite side of the headboard is a photograph of a very young Osorio, framed in a burst of cigars, plastic bridegrooms, and garlic bulbs. Studding almost every surface of the bed are little plastic baby dolls, some black, some white, the imagined product of Osorio’s and Soto’s union. (He is black; she is white.) Riding across the top of the headboard are toy carriages, fit for Cinderella, drawn by plumed horses, and at the base of Soto’s photograph is a pair of pink ballerina slippers. So almost everything is here: man and woman, art and life, black and white, childhood love and adult love, New York and Puerto Rico, God and the devil, birth and death. Together, of course, with popular art—a thousand examples of it—pasted and sewed and wired together into a piece of high art, shown in a museum.

Central to the show is the question of cultural identity that is so pressing to Puerto Ricans, coming as they do from a culture that was riven by Spanish colonialism and the slave trade and then annexed by the United States. In the course of the latter convulsion, Puerto Rico became divided not just geographically but culturally, acquiring a second center, New York, which became a port of exile for many of the island’s poorest people at the same time that it became an escape hatch for many of the island’s most gifted people, including Osorio. Nothing could look more Puerto Rican than Osorio’s art, with its gaiety, abundance, and color, its love of tchatchkes and religious paraphernalia. And nothing could look more New York–like than Osorio’s work, with its simultaneous embrace of and remove from that colorful world. Latinos, he recently said, have a habit of “creating an abundance that is not there, and not looking beyond it.”2 The idea for El Chandelier came to Osorio one night when, standing on a street on New York’s Lower East Side, he looked up and saw seven or eight chandeliers shining in the windows of a poverty-ridden housing project. So the piece is not just a heaven; it is the heaven you dream of when you are in something like hell. With it, Osorio means to comment both on a people who, living in deprivation, will comfort themselves with these icons of richness and on a society that, by depriving them, sends them to such substitutes.

The writers of the catalogue essays are at pains to point out the political meanings of Osorio’s work. “As in life,” writes Kellie Jones, “the appearance of exuberance and lightheartedness [in Osorio’s art] often masks a deeper seriousness, even melancholy, or political intent. . . . His abundance parodies a world where people of color often lack the basics of health care, education, and money.”3 Not just his explicators but Osorio too is worried that people won’t get the point. “The element of popular culture makes . . . people see the work as humor,” he says in the catalogue interview. “But it is not so.”4

This worry, together with the recent escalation of political anger in this country, may help to account for the decreased decorativeness and increased rhetorical bluntness of Osorio’s work in the past three years. Some of these newer pieces are heavy-handed; they clobber you. María Cristina Martínez Olmedo, D.O.B., 3/27/89, 1989, shows a black baby, a doll, lying gravely ill in a gaily decorated bassinet. Others are very effective. One of the most striking things in the show was a 1991 installation called El Velorio (The wake). Essentially, it was a funeral-parlor room with seven coffins, all for people who died of AIDS. Some of the coffins were open, showing photographs of the dead. Over them were plaques with descriptions of the victims or statements from the people they left behind. “When she died,” says one, “I was still very angry. . . . We had quit drugs three years ago.” El Veloria is utterly austere. You have to read the wall label in order to believe that it was done by the same artist who made La Cama.

But if Osorio and his commentators are concerned that much of his work will gladden the hearts of those who see it, there is reason to worry. Most of the pieces in this show radiate a joyfulness that resists deconstruction. Or, if we are to read through it, what we would read is the desire for beauty, the love of richness, the hunger for life. Osorio may see that his chandelier is a plastic heaven, and with it he may be telling us a story about poverty. At the same time, however, he clearly loves this chandelier—loves kewpie dolls and toy cars, fantasy and extravagance—and you can feel as you look at it the pleasure he had in making it. In the catalogue interview he speaks with pride of the fabulous, four-foot-high wedding cakes that his mother, a part-time baker, used to make for the people back home. They were “incredible productions ,” he says, “fountains . . . sugar . . . dolls . . . oceans . . . . That was very important for me.”5 El Chandelier is obviously the child of those wedding cakes.

If Osorio’s attitude toward his culture is divided between participation and meditation, embrace and distance, that makes him merely one of a thousand artists who come from, love, and in a deep sense know nothing but a culture that only later they discover is disadvantaged, despised. Once they make the discovery, they acquire perspective. But that perspective never eliminates the world of meanings that preceded it, and these artists’ deepest imaginings are still conceived in that world. When you look at El Chandelier, you see its wit—its juxtaposition of Tiffany’s with Woolworth’s, its astonishing excess—and you sense its political meaning. But when you look at it again, you feel the same wonder that the Lower East Side project-dwellers must feel when they gaze at their chandeliers, or that Osorio felt as he fingered the treasures of Juana Hernández: it is beautiful. I wish I owned it.

Given Osorio’s divided feelings, however, probably the most representative work in the show is A Mis Adorables Hijas (To my darling daughters, 1990). This is a velvet couch trimmed in gold. Its top is encrusted, Osorio-style, with relics of the owner’s life—hairpins, thimbles, milagros, plastic houseflies—and across its purple cushions is written a suicide note: “I have to confess to you that I don’t feel as well as I used to . . . the pain is stronger every day. . . . I hope that in time you will forgive me. . . .” Here is a political tragedy. Like El Chandelier, the piece is an emissary from the lives of the Puerto Rican poor. We can imagine the woman, guess how long she saved to buy the couch, see her dying on it. At the same time, A Mis Adorables Hijas is simply a plain old tragedy, full of the darkness of life, not just the lives of Puerto Ricans. Though it lacks the joy that enlivens so many of Osorio’s pieces, it epitomizes the power of transformation that gives his work its deep and magical character: how everything he makes is full of voices, crawls with history and memory—how you can see Cookie’s baby in a party favor, hear an old woman’s voice from inside her couch, know people’s lives from their objects. At the same time, the couch epitomizes the spirit of generosity that in so many ways, from the pearl swags to the politics, informs all of Osorio’s work.

Joan Acocella is a dance critic who lives in New York. She is writing a book on the choreographer Mark Morris.

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NOTES

1. Pepón Osorio, in an interview with Félix Joaquín Rivera, “Why More Is Better,” Pépon Osorio, exhibition catalogue, New York: El Museo del Barrio, 1991, p. 37.
2. Osorio, quoted in Susana Torruella Leval, “Con To’ los Hierros,” Pepón Osorio, p. 12.
3. Kellie Jones, “Domestic Prayer,” Pepón Osorio, p. 31.
4. Osorio, Pepón Osorio, p. 35.
5. Ibid.