New York

Pepón Osorio

Although Pepón Osorio has been making art for 15 years, this retrospective shows only his work from 1985 to the present. In this seven-year period, Osorio—who is a black Puerto Rican—has engaged in an ongoing dialogue with his own non-European cultural heritages, rather than with European-derived art history.

Osorio’s investigation of culturally contextualized identity takes the form of mixed-media constructions, installations, and dance performances. The dialectic between individual and cultural identity that has consistently informed Osorio’s oeuvre is most evident in the works based on the artist’s childhood memories of Puerto Rico. In these works everyday objects, such as a bicycle, are excessively adorned with plastic trinkets, or chucherias. This process taps into autobiographical sources even as it reenacts the shared cultural ritual of transforming one’s surroundings through decoration. La Cama (The bed, 1987), an installation that presents a large, ornately decorated four-poster, is the most explicitly autobiographical. To the requisite array of trinkets and devotional images, Osorio has added personal photographs as well as the Spanish text of a dream, written on the wall about one foot from the floor. In this hypothetical introduction of a current lover to a deceased childhood caretaker, personal history becomes a vehicle for characterizing a specific cultural ritual, that of commemorating the dead with pomp and circumstance.

Elsewhere, Osorio investigates the construction of gender. In El Corolla Club, 1989, a typically overdecorated Toyota windshield is a gentle send-up of Latino machismo, specifically the equation of one’s manhood with one’s car. By contrast, A Mis Adorables Hijas (To my darling daughters, 1990) looks at the despair of a fictional, overburdened Puerto Rican mother whose suicide note has been sewn onto a regal purple sofa, along with symbols of her unfulfilled American dream.

Osorio is overtly political in two installations that address the lack of adequate health care endured by both black and Puerto Rican communities in the U.S. In Maria Cristina Martinez Olmedo, D.O.B. 3/27/89, 1989, Osorio draws attention to the high minority infant mortality rate by means of a simple but effective paradox: a frilly white bassinet holds a life-size black baby doll that appears to be pitifully bandaged and hooked to IV tubes. Equally effective is the dramatic, room-size installation El Velorio (The wake, 1991), which addresses the problem of AIDS. Cooled to refrigerator temperature and filled with coffins and body bags, this room’s profound silence functions as a metaphor for the kind of silence that contributes to the spread of this disease, especially within the Hispanic community.

While many of Osorio’s works were originally conceived as props or set designs for avant-garde dance performances, they nevertheless hold their own outside of that context. Yet this connection to a nonart arena underscores the artist’s orientation to culture generally, as opposed to simply the high-art tradition. His primary method of working is indeed appropriation—of found objects and of pop-cultural artifacts—yet he breaks with the longstanding Duchampian tradition of art as art criticism. Addressing the culturally specific construction of subjectivity, Osorio rejects the notion of art as a closed system, affirming instead its role as a means of gaining critical insight into lived experience.

Jenifer P. Borum