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Pepón Osorio Brings All Kinds of Community to His Sprawling New Museum Show

Pepón Osorio is not like other artists. I knew this fact before I met him at his studio in Philadelphia a month before the opening of his sprawling new show, My Beating Heart, Mi Corazón Latiente, at the New Museum in New York City. But when I visited the exhibition—which is now on view through September 17, 2023—I learned the show’s co-curators, Margot Norton and Bernardo Mosqueira, felt just the same about the Puerto Rican visual artist. Each of us had been moved by Osorio’s artwork at some point in our lives—his singular ability to merge a deep sense of community, history, architecture, and Latin American culture into densely decorated and thematically layered installations.

“You walk into a museum and you do not expect to connect in that way,” Norton told me during a walkthrough of the exhibition in mid April. “To see something that reminds you of your friend’s home, or your own home, it makes you realize the schism that exists between the type of aesthetic you’re used to seeing in these two places.”

For over 35 years, Osorio has been making work that investigates ideas surrounding race, gender, sexuality, politics, and social inequalities. His empathetic nature and ability to listen and connect with people are central to how he’s made his work over the years. His pieces often stem from conversations with both strangers and kin; he has also notably spent much of his career outside of traditional art institutions, favoring an independent practice that allows him to always engage with and show his work directly in the communities that have inspired him.

Now, a selection of his large-scale installations are displayed on the second floor galleries at the New Museum. My Beating Heart focuses on the elaborate, multimedia environments Osorio has been crafting since the early 1990s. A number of installations have been mounted, including “Scene of the Crime (Whose Crime?)” and Osorio’s latest piece “Convalescence,” 2023. The artist created the latter work, along with “My Beating Heart/Mi Corazón Latiente” (after which the show is named), following a recent health scare that led him to interactions with patients in hospitals and conversations around healing. “In all the work that I do, death has been very present in one way or another,” he told me during our studio visit. “I’ve become very aware of our fragility and how people of color have had some weird relationship with the healthcare system. When I became part of that group of people that depended on it, I realized the majority of the people who went to the hospital for treatment were not okay. And so I became concerned.” His overarching message behind the latest show? That we have the potential to physically, spiritually, and emotionally heal ourselves.

Osorio was born in Santurce, a barrio along the north-eastern coast of San Juan, Puerto Rico. His mother was a nurse who, as he put it, “took care of the whole neighborhood,” and his father worked at the local Gulf Oil company. “I had a wonderful relationship with my parents. They were very flexible and understanding,” Osorio said. “I don’t come from a troubled family. We weren’t rich, we weren’t even well-to-do. But both of my parents worked and they did the best to make sure that I had a secure life.” The artist grew up with an additional member of his home who was instrumental in his upbringing, Juana Hernández. “At that time in Puerto Rico, there was a tradition of adding people to your family for the benefit of having someone to help you out,” he recalled. “I knew Juana since Day One. She became like my second mother.”

Aside from being a nurse, his mother was also a baker. Making each one of her cakes became a family affair, and Osorio remembers how all five members of his household were involved. He would make intricate ornaments that decorated the cakes—which became the foundation of his ability to think three-dimensionally.

Osorio moved to the Bronx in 1975. “I came with the excuse to go to university,” he said. “But I actually came to New York because I wanted to leave the island. The dreams that my parents had and the ideas that I had of what I wanted to become didn’t match. The other reason is because I’m of African descent. I realized that things were three times more difficult for me to achieve because I was Black, so I had to be somewhere else.”

In the early 1980s, Osorio began making art thanks to his close friend, the Puerto Rican artist Awilda Sterling-Duprey, who was getting her masters at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. Osorio would join Sterling-Duprey in the school’s studios and started exploring making art of his own—collages, paintings, and sculptures. “I got to installations because I realized that there was something missing for me in other mediums,” he said. “My childhood and experiences have always been at the center. In my household, the TV would be on at the same time as the radio—the kitchen was going, everyone was talking, you could hear the people from the street. I also started experiencing a sense of loss from the island and I negotiated this idea of longing with the idea of creating my own world.”

Sterling-Duprey later introduced Osorio to the choreographer, dancer, and performance artist Merián Soto. Soto and Osorio, who later married, collaborated on theatricalizing common spaces—which would become a signature of Osorio’s aesthetic language. Soto danced and Osorio designed sets for the stage; together, they created works like “Cocinando/Cooking,” and “No Regrets.” Osorio also took up a job as a caseworker in the 1980s for the Department of Human Services, now the New York City Department for Children’s Services. Visiting the homes of people around the city, he was confronted with the difficult realities many Latino families experienced. “I felt honored that people allowed me in their homes, and at the same time I felt a lot of compassion. I was extremely worried about the conditions that some people were living in,” Osorio told me. He spent almost ten years as a caseworker, unknowingly gathering knowledge on the architecture of people’s homes and seeing firsthand the way in which governmental systems had failed Black and brown communities in the U.S.

Osorio had become known for his many personal and socially engaged artworks by the 1990s. He had a retrospective at El Museo del Barrio in 1991, Con To’ Los Hierros. But it wasn’t until the infamous 1993 Whitney Biennial—which brought identity politics to the forefront of the art world and featured artists like Daniel Martinez, Fred Wilson, Guillermo Gómez-Peña, and Coco Fusco—that he reached a higher level of notoriety. Osorio created “Scene of the Crime (Whose Crime?)” for the exhibition, an installation that brought viewers into the living space of an intricately decorated Puerto Rican home and featured a murder scene surrounded by film equipment. The piece was inspired by his experiences as a caseworker, the controversial filming of Fort Apache, the Bronx and its violent portrayal of Latinos, and the racist lens through which the mainstream media depicts Latino culture. The piece became an emblem of the ’93 biennial that was vastly misunderstood and rejected by the art establishment.

“I always felt like an outsider,” Osorio recalled. “I felt that I had a lot of tension with institutions, especially after I had come from one of the biggest institutions—the Department of Human Services. So when I came into the biennial and with the reception that it got—for me, it was a little bit out of hand. I felt like I was buying into something that was primarily white. I thought to myself, ‘I’ve worked with these people in the community who are supposed to be my collaborators and here I am working in a museum that has nothing to do with the people that I’m working with.’ And so I said, no.” From then on, Osorio decided to always present his work first in the context of the neighborhood and among the people the work was about. Afterward, it could go to museums.

“He realized that in order to speak to the community he was a part of, he needed to create work in the community,” co-curator Norton said. “He always felt that you make art for the immediacy, for the people directly around you, and you’re not necessarily making art for other reasons. He still feels that way.”

“His work is never just a representation of a crisis—instead, it asks how can we react collectively to situations of injustice,” co-curator Mosqueira added. Through his work and compassion, Osorio reminds us of the importance of active engagement with the people around us—and how imperative it is that we take care of one another.