drenched in an aesthetic that celebrates mass pop culture and the inexpensive, kitsch-laden detritus of contemporary society. He covers his works with plastic toys, baubles, sequins, elaborate fabrics, polished metal, and other reflective and iridescent surfaces, as well as industrially produced materials in colors not found in nature.
Scattered throughout his work are reminders of Osorio's experiences with doubly harsh racism as a black Puerto Rican and the misunderstandings and stereotypes suffered by the working class. Installations such as Badge of Honor suggest the domestic sphere of the Puerto Rican household in exile. However, Osorio's translocated Puerto Rico is a condensed reality combining aspects of the island he left in 1975 with the excesses and urban social pressures of the mainland United States.
Osorio's mother was a part-time baker. While he was growing up in the community of Puerto Nuevo in Puerto Rico, she involved the entire family in the creation of her elaborate cakes for weddings, birthdays, and quinciñeras (fifteenth-birthday celebrations, or coming-of-age parties, for girls). On top of the cakes his father built elaborate wire-and-net structures that could include many levels, miniature bridges, and staircases covered with sugar coating. This sense of accumulation and application of layers of frosting and detailed ornamentation over potentially mundane foundations has remained a crucial factor in Osorio's subsequent work.2 Over the years, he has moved from assisting in the ornamentation of baked goods to ornamenting mass-produced objects such as a bicycle, crystal chandelier, and upholstered settee to his more recent work, in which such objects are found in spaces where the decorative encrustation defines the entire environment.
After completing high school, Osorio entered the Inter-American University in Hato Rey, Puerto Rico.3 In 1973 he visited New York for the first time and was intrigued by the transformation of Puerto Rican culture under the mainland influence.
[His works] are drenched in an aesthetic that celebrates mass pop culture and the inexpensive, kitsch-laden detritus of contemporary society.
In the mid-1980s Osorio became disillusioned with the New York art world of museums and galleries. He felt that the work being done by his friends who were choreographers, dancers, and performance artists had greater potential to bridge gaps in communication than did the creation of individual static or precious objects. A combination of sociological observation and innovative artistic creativity was clearly evident in Osorio's first collaborations with the choreographer Merián Soto (whom he married in 1987) and other performers. Osorio was particularly attracted to the way these performers exposed the domestic sphere to public scrutiny; through his work with them, he gained a more complex understanding of the dynamics between presentation and viewer.
Scattered throughout his work are reminders of Osorio's experiences with doubly harsh racism as a black Puerto Rican and the misunderstandings and stereotypes suffered by the working class.
In the modernist tradition, the artist challenges the politically and socially dominant notion of "traditional" art by creating objects that seem to confront directly concepts of taste, appropriateness of subject matter, and overt theatricality. However, as a sociologist and teacher, Osorio also understands art's potential as a tool for social transformation and development. The mission he has set himself is the redirection of the conceptually driven world of contemporary art towards the needs of a large population for whom the contemporary art world has little relevance.
Osorio appropriates industrial mass-produced products and recontextualizes them by divorcing them from their intended purpose and recombining them in excessively baroque compositions. The result is an entirely new visual venue of mass consumerism. His appropriation of plastic chucherías (the word used in Puerto Rico to indicate trinkets or knickknacks, equivalent to the Yiddish word tchotchkes) allows him to formulate environments of personal response to a dense and overstimulating world.
In the modernist tradition, the artist challenges the politically
and socially dominant notion of "traditional" art by creating objects that seem to confront directly concepts of taste, appropriateness of subject matter, and overt theatricality.
We need only glance at one of the artist's works to realize that Osorio embraces an attitude that "more is more" rather than the modernist notion that "less is more." Each level of applied decoration carries with it additional meaning and significance for the artist. He insists that the costume jewelry and pearls he uses in so much of his work should be viewed as they are by the Puerto Rican community, not as fake jewelry or fake pearls but as plastic jewelry and pearls. Osorio uses such materials not as substitutes for an expensive or "real" thing, but rather to demonstrate a desire to create luxury and elegance where there is none.
In most of his installations, he relies on mundane materials, but enlivens their presence by replicating them again and again, creating abundance through ingenuity.
Osorio . . .
understands art's potential
as a tool for social transformation and development. The mission
he has set himself is the redirection of the conceptually driven
world of contemporary art towards the needs of a large population
for whom the contemporary art world has little relevance.
Osorio's approach gives voice to a society not with the methodology of a social scientist, but rather from the perspective of the working class itself. His view from within brings an understanding that is new to the art establishment.
Although some critics have accused Osorio of making fun of his own community, the artist insists that he is building upon a reality that exists, amplifying it so that it is no longer overlooked. "I grew up in a place where 'community' was not a word, community was basically the place where you lived."5 Osorio lives and operates within two very complex spheres. Both the post-modern world of fine art and the post-modern world of relocated Puerto Ricans have very specific identities within the larger context of United States culture.
Osorio uses such materials not as substitutes for an expensive or "real" thing, but rather to demonstrate a desire to create luxury and elegance where there is none.
Badge of Honor is a tribute to the bonds formed by families and the myriad societal forces that can build walls between family members. The installation was commissioned by the Newark Museum and, in keeping with the artist's philosophy, was exhibited in the heart of a predominantly Latino section of the New Jersey city. The installationwas free to the public and presented in a rented storefront for several months during the summer of 1995, after which it was moved to a formal setting at the Newark Museum.
I grew up in a place where "community" was not a word, community was basically the place where you lived.
The concerns Osorio raises have national resonance; for most visitors, the aesthetic aspects of the installation become secondary. The florid installation with its visual excess becomes the basis for a profound dialogue between a father and son. Their comments and questions to each other sound so very real that the artifice of setting and startling juxtaposition of cell and room are accepted as crucial to the story.
Badge of Honor is a tribute to the bonds formed by families and the myriad societal forces that can build walls between family
Badge of Honor is composed of two bays sharing a common wall. One represents the world of the father, a prison cell of bare walls furnished only with a sink and a bunk with a pair of clean sneakers tucked neatly under it. The other represents the world of the son, a bedroom filled with the material possessions of a teenager's wildest dreams.
To create Badge of Honor, Osorio had to construct a physically impossible conversation between a son and his incarcerated father. The project depended upon his locating a family willing to have its personal emotions explored by an artist who would in turn expose those fragile sensitivities to public scrutiny. Several social service groups assisted the artist by suggesting individuals. The artist interviewed many people before discovering the father and son whose real story would become the anonymous fuel for the installation.
With the assistance of Irene Sosa, he recorded on videotape the father asking questions of the son and then took these questions to the son, recording the son's reactions to seeing his father ask the questions, and the son's responses to the questions. Osorio also asked the son for questions he would like to ask the father. He then repeated the procedure of recording on camera the father's reactions and answers to the son's questions.
These two separate tracks of the father and son were edited to be projected simultaneously, so that one speaks while the other listens, and vice versa. The black-and-white images are projected on opposite walls with a dividing wall in between. In the installation, therefore, as in life, the father and son are unable to see each other.
Osorio observes and understands the human tendency to create illusions in which one can believe.
The father's drab-colored cell is almost completely devoid of objects; we are divided from the space by a tight grid of black prison bars. A hinged bunk juts from the wall; the space beneath is lit by harsh fluorescent lights that cast stark shadows. Similarly the son's bed is lit underneath, but the effect is of a high-tech sports car hovering over a pool of cool light. The lighting is the only commonality between the two spaces.
The son's bedroom is delineated by a mirror-tile floor and floor-to-ceiling baseball cards applied as wallpaper. Posters celebrating athletes, late-model automobiles, and kung-fu movies cover the rest of the wall surfaces. The open closet door reveals brightly colored sports uniforms and casual clothes; the shelves are full of electronic audio and video equipment and bright gold- and silver-colored sports trophies. The illuminated, freestanding dresser is encrusted with transparent photo blowups of Latino prizefighters. A top-of-the-line mountain bike, basketballs, and other sports equipment fill the room. Large gilded plastic fists with brightly jeweled rings decorate the edges of the dressers, bed, and shelves.
He realizes that a community will
be interested in the process if the artist accepts its concerns
and makes them his own.
Symbols of consumerism and stereotypical male roles, identity, and machismo in the bedroom contrast with the overall femininity of the space, which resembles a high-tech Victorian parlor upholstered with floral chintz and filled with elaborate knickknacks. The installation is filled with many such startling contradictions between expectations/stereotypes and presented reality. At one point in the dialogue, the son tells the father that he would give up everything he has -- sound system, television, VCR, new bike -- just to have the father home with the family. With this one statement the son breaks the assumed spell of material possessions; at the same time, it is clear that the son realizes the impossibility of the trade and is therefore able to keep his things.
Although the mother is not seen in either of the physical spaces, or in the video, her presence and influence are clearly felt; both father and son refer to her with great respect. Reflecting the realities of many contemporary households, the unseen woman holds the family together. Osorio felt it was important to present private lives in a positive way, without relying on sentimentality or avoiding difficult issues like incarceration, divided families, honesty, and dreams.
Osorio, like other activist artists -- John Ahearn and Rigoberto Torres, or Tim Rollins & KOS -- is interested not in speaking to a community, but involving that community in the process of creating art.
My work is looking at prevailing concepts and stereotypes of who
Latinos are. I've always looked at it as if I put someone on a
cliff and I say "go ahead, jump." Either the spectator flies or
falls. . . .
This is the way I transform, actually confine, our
lives into an object.
My work is looking at prevailing concepts and stereotypes of who Latinos are. I've always looked at it as if I put someone on a cliff and I say 'go ahead, jump.' Either the spectator flies or falls. . . . This is the way I transform, actually confine, our lives into an object.7
3. Much of the biographical information about the artist was drawn from Susana Torruella Leval, Con To' Los Hierros: A Retrospective of the Work of Pepón Osorio (New York: El Museo del Barrio, 1991).
4. Pepón Osorio, quoted in Jonathan Mandell, "The Chronicler of El Barrio," New York Newsday, 20 June 1991: 70.
5. Author's interview with the artist, 29 June 1995.