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Pepón Osorio Pushes the Bounds of Public Art

Puerto Rican artist Pepón Osorio’s large-scale multimedia installations have catapulted him to the upper echelons of the art world. But his beginnings were modest. Born into a middle-class family of African descent in 1955, he began making art as a child in the San Juan neighborhood of Santurce, where he drew constantly and constructed simple pieces with found objects.

Like many Afro-Latino creatives, the young Osorio couldn’t envision himself as an artist in the traditional sense, in large part due to the overwhelming whiteness of the art industry. He felt a calling to help his community, so in 1973, he enrolled in the social work program at the Interamerican University of Puerto Rico.

Two years later, in 1975, Osorio immigrated to the South Bronx in New York City and registered at Herbert H. Lehman College, where he majored in sociology. He received a master’s degree in that same subject from Columbia University in 1985, while working as a social worker in the Bronx. Initially, Osorio practiced art alongside his social work. But he eventually grew disillusioned with the field and decided to focus on art full time.

Osorio’s experiences as a social worker exerted a profound influence on his art, and his projects ever since have engaged with Latin and Afro-Latino communities. “My principal commitment as an artist is to return art to the community,” the artist has said.

Osorio is best known for his big, bold installations, such as No Crying Allowed in the Barbershop, a 1994 work about Latino masculinity and vulnerability. The installation references the artist’s visit to a barbershop when he was 5 years old. “What was meant to be a celebration became a disastrous event” because the barber was unaccustomed to working with curly hair, Osorio recalled in a 2001 episode of the television series “Art in the 21st Century.” He added that the experience represented “a combination of race and rite of passage into becoming a little man, and … both came together simultaneously.”

Another large-scale piece, Las Twines, a 1998 installation whose name is slang for “Twin Girls” in Spanish, featured two mannequins, one white and one Black, that represented the duality of the Afro-Latino experience. The Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) in Washington, D.C. acquired the mixed-media work last year.

Throughout his career, Osorio has developed a form of participatory art in which a given community becomes involved, both materially and conceptually, in the artistic process. From the start, he engages locals in conversations about issues they want to address and works to select materials that are meaningful to the community. Osorio’s experience of practicing art with the community led him to view installation work as the fullest way of honoring his roots. “The only way that I can connect [is] by doing installation work,” he said in the 2001 episode, “because I [felt] that I needed to say something that had to be beyond something on the wall. … I need to create a space that is overpowering.”

In 1988, Osorio created what may be his signature work: El Chandelier, a crystal chandelier decorated with baby dolls, plastic palm trees, tropical ferns, dominoes and pearls, as well as sculptures of saints and coquís (a rainforest tree frog native to Puerto Rico). Part of SAAM’s collection since 1995, it pays homage to the artist’s roots and his Afro-Latino conception of beauty, spirituality and culture. As the museum notes, “The illusion of abundance masks the realities of life in poor urban communities. Osorio saw this kind of making-do aesthetic—creating something wonderful out of nothing—in the apartments he visited when he worked as a social worker.”

Osorio’s careful choice of materials in El Chandelier tells a story of longing and loss, of the struggles and exclusions experienced by the Afro-Latino community. Within the constraints of poverty, he suggests, beauty comes from the reality of the materials at hand, rescued from mass production and daily use, and elevated to a conceptual plane. The artwork also evokes Afro-Latino people’s connection with nature—one that many immigrants must leave behind when they emigrate to other lands.

With its mix of kitsch Americana, natural Puerto Rican imagery and quotidian objects, El Chandelier establishes a dialogue between what different cultures regard as art and serves as a vivid embodiment of Osorio’s artistic philosophy.

The artist’s work is deeply rooted in the Bronx, where he often installs informal exhibitions in streets, stores and public places. In this way, he evokes beauty in places where beauty must contend with poverty and social marginalization. Osorio insists on making art public and accessible to everyone: “My art is for people who go to museums and for people who don’t go to museums,” he told the New York Times in 1999. “It’s an old notion that people go to the museum. It should really be the museum going to the people.”

Also in 1999, the MacArthur Foundation awarded Osorio one of its “genius” grants. Though his reputation is now global—he has exhibited at the Reina Sofía Museum in Madrid, the Alejandro Otero Museum in Venezuela and the Kathmandu Contemporary Arts Center in Nepal, among other institutions—he remains deeply committed to communities closer to home, too. Today, he splits his time between San Juan and Philadelphia.

For the ongoing project Convalescence, Osorio consulted cancer patients, first responders and healers, creating a three-part installation that offers powerful commentary on illness and the for-profit medical industry. The work is now on view in a major exhibition of Osorio’s works: “My Beating Heart/Mi corazón latiente” at the New Museum in New York City.

As Osorio tells Smithsonian magazine, “Nowadays, I am very concerned with finding new ways of closing the gap between museums and communities. I keep searching for ways to make art real.” A lecturer at Temple University in Philadelphia, he encourages his student-artists to create projects in their communities—projects that defy dominant notions of beauty and who deserves to live surrounded by it.