The centerpiece of Pepón Osorio's first solo New York gallery exhibition since 2005, at Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, is a rotating double environment called Drowned in a Glass of Water (2010).
Now, Osorio, a pioneer installation artist, may be a MacArthur Foundation fellow, a multiple Whitney Biennialist and the veteran of a brilliant solo show at El Museo del Barrio, which featured his seminal recreation of a Puerto Rican barbershop in Spanish Harlem, but his art remains community-based both in purpose and exhibition. Drowned commenced last year as a storefront experiment in North Adams, Mass., moved to the Williams College Museum of Art, and is now at Feldman.
On the way, Pepón has added elements of influence from Tony Oursler's robotic face-screens and Pipilotti Rist's Mittel-European apartment installation at Luhring Augustine in 2005, in which the latter implanted HDTV screens in a nostalgic domestic environment, but these associations evaporate with repeated viewings of Osorio's turn of the wheel, as different images and objects that you hadn't seen a moment ago pop out at you.
Ostensibly, the large Lazy Susan winding on its axis carries on one half the home of a poor Barrio family and on the other the home of a wealthy employer of said family, but the two quickly merge. Both are united by images of mortality: a wheeled hospital stretcher and a ghostly swimming pool on the rich side; a wheelchair surrounded by toys and a mannequin of a woman in a large, gorgeous crocheted, rose colored balloon dress on the poor side.
The mannequin's bare arms are swathed in Band-Aids, from abuse, perhaps scarification. Behind her is a majestic photo of a proud old Latino smoking a cigar in a wheelchair, the first image that impresses. But then you notice the film of a face in the hollow of a tree on the wealthy side that can be viewed only at a certain angle of rotation in the mirror behind it and you are off to the visual races.
At first I dismissed Pepón's use of HDTV screens as inauthentic, but the more you look at the acts depicted on said screens, such as the crocheting of the above-mentioned dress, the more the ubiquity of the televisionary in all its ordinariness demands inclusion. The poor side of the wheel is loaded with Hispanotchochkes, from teddy bears to ceramic animals, while the rich side is streamlined in its cold emptiness.
Osorio's genius has always been that what he scatters, however voluminous, always holds together, as he personally calls attention to the unity of humanity in his own generous eyes. Across from Drowned, in the Feldman space, is a chaise longue covered in an eagle blanket and there is a stunning video of an arrested immigrant prisoner wailing from behind a stultifying set of bars, but these are visual grace notes that set you up for spending an hour gazing at Drowned and contemplating your own place within it. The artist has assured you such a place, that's Osorio's special genius.
Pepón Osorio, Sept. 10-Oct. 22, 2011, at Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, 31 Mercer Street, New York, N.Y. 10013.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).