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Pepón Osorio, New Museum review — affecting exhibition makes the heart beat again

Step into the New Museum’s ardent and affecting Pepón Osorio retrospective in New York and you find yourself confronting the artist’s naked heart — or rather, a 6ft scale model of that muscle, bloody and bristling with red crepe-paper capillaries fluttering in the breeze. Speakers embedded in its surface carry the swish and thump of Osorio’s own pulse.

It’s a metaphor that’s no less effective for being obvious. The whole thing dangles festively from the ceiling like a giant piñata, practically begging to be smashed. “My Beating Heart” (2000) is also his beaten heart, an organ that, Osorio says, “has been ‘killed’, but that I have been able to piece together as an adult, so it can take more of a beating”.

 Some people wear their hearts on their sleeve; this man pumps it up and hangs it out for all to see, making his agonies a matter of public concern. This trumpeting of pathos lends its title to the exhibition, which thrums with joy, nostalgia, anger, love, compassion and wistful acquiescence. For Osorio, overt displays of emotion are a versatile artistic tool.

He was born in 1955 in San Juan, Puerto Rico. His father worked for the local oil company and his mother was a professional nurse and amateur baker who produced cakes for the entire community. The three family members baked side by side, secreting treats inside the batter. (Thin ribbons made it possible to pull out each tiny ring or toy — hopefully not from the back of an unsuspecting throat.) “That was the beginning of my understanding of how to surprise people and be generous in the making of things,” he recalls in the show’s catalogue. He’s been honing those skills for decades: astonishment and abundance animate the New Museum show.

After moving to New York in 1975, Osorio took a meandering path towards art. He spent 10 years as a caseworker in the city’s child abuse prevention unit, visiting homes, asking questions and learning the intimate minutiae of troubled families. He also began collaborating with his future wife, the choreographer and performance artist Merián Soto. Gathering information and designing stage sets turned out to be complementary activities, as he demonstrated when his “Scene of the Crime (Whose Crime?)” took the spotlight in the politically explosive 1993 Whitney Biennial.

That piece, on view again here, has lost none of its gruesomely irresistible power. It casts the viewer as voyeur, a gaping bystander pausing at the doorway of a Puerto Rican family’s apartment in the Bronx. We crane past the police tape into a blood-spattered room so choked with memorabilia, framed photos and bric-a-brac that we can barely make out the body. Shattered crockery and overturned chairs surround a possibly female victim, if a single gold-coloured shoe says anything about its wearer.

The profusion of clues and the depth of the mystery make us suddenly self-conscious, aware of being participants and onlookers, witnesses and detectives, equally compelled to stare and turn away. Puerto Rican Spanish has a term for the congenital rubbernecker: el averigüao. “That should be the subtitle of our exhibition!” Osorio exclaims in a catalogue interview. It could also be the title on every viewer’s name tag.

This scene of exuberant mayhem, like a contemporary version of Delacroix’s “Death of Sardanapalus”, meshes violence with visual pleasure. Osorio elevates the pastel statuettes, plastic-covered sofa, votive candles and red sateen curtains to a panoply of baroque splendour spiked with poignancy. “I wanted to disregard the architecture of the museum and bring in a chunk from the South Bronx, creating tension between those two places,” he explains.

The same urge to evoke an enigma through over-decoration runs through “No Crying Allowed in the Barbershop” (1994), originally installed in a disused salon in Hartford, Connecticut. Osorio creates a men’s preserve, tricked out with a decorative array of hubcaps and photos of Latino boxers, entertainers, politicians and athletes. But he also confounds the macho atmosphere with peach-coloured walls, lush house plants and a cluster of red chairs trimmed with lace doilies. Looped scenes of wildly weeping men play on screens embedded in the headrests. Osorio can’t resist a touch of gore: severed ears lie piled on the floor at one (presumably sloppy) barber’s station.

Three decades ago, Osorio was a new father thinking about what it meant to be a man in a culture of confining and destructive machismo. The barbershop becomes what curator Bernardo Mosqueira calls “a tragic theatre of masculinity”, a place to explore men’s hidden vulnerability and homoeroticism. Its presiding spirit is St Lazarus, whose life-sized effigy is impossible to miss because you have to step around it to enter the installation. With his sore-pitted skin and sorrowful eyes, he invites us into his world of suffering with a mixture of compassion and admonition.

The retrospective follows Osorio’s career right up to his recent “Convalescence”, a life-sized mannequin stuck with pins and magnifying lenses, with an anatomical model where his heart should be. The piece distils — and rages at — the artist’s journey through the medical system. But I kept finding myself drawn back to the works he made in the 1990s, like the tremendously moving “Badge of Honor”, which approaches the collision of fatherhood and machismo in even starker terms than “Barbershop”.

That cinematic installation presents cross-sections of two rooms. One is bedecked with a dazzling fantasy of teenaged-boy stuff: athletic trophies, trainers, a big unmade bed and an entire wall tiled in baseball cards. The other, viewable through bars, contains only the few stark necessities of a prison cell.

These side-by-side spaces represent the real-life living quarters of two Nelsons, father and son, who speak to each other in stilted dialogue recorded in separate sessions over several weeks. Osorio and his crew shuttled back and forth between the family home and the father’s cell, playing Nelson Sr’s footage to Nelson Jr and vice versa.

What emerges is a conversation across a wall, full of simple words and complicated emotions. Watching their disjointed Zoom-like meeting take place on this bisected stage is like witnessing both a painful separation and a human connection made possible by art. When Osorio first mounted the piece in an abandoned storefront in a predominantly black and Latino neighbourhood of Newark, New Jersey, passers-by wandered in off the street. I suspect they were blindsided by the spectacle of tenderness and loss.

The museum setting is more formal, but in a way that may even heighten the impact. Here, the feelings that emanate from the wall in each room run gradually deeper until, like the elder Nelson on his jailhouse screen, you awake to your own response and find yourself in tears.