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THE NEW YORK TIMES
"Voces y Visiones": Spiritual Power, No Matter How Humble
By HOLLAND COTTER
December 26, 2003
El Museo del Barrio
Masks and santos are also on display in "Voces y Visiones" at El Museo del Barrio, a large exhibition drawn entirely from the museum's permanent holdings. Among other things, El Museo owns this country's second largest collection, after the Smithsonian Institution, of Puerto Rican santos, made by traditional carvers from the mid-19th century to the mid-20th. Several are on display and they are, as ever, enchanting.
As in Peru, the santos are European images re-envisioned, familiar Christian saints and symbols with expanded, updated identities. St. Lazarus retains his ancient role as protector against plague but is now invoked to battle AIDS. The venerable St. Barbara is still relied on to ward off lightning, but she also works a second job through her association with Chango, the god of lightning in the Afro-Caribbean religion called Santería.
Contemporary Latino art is adept at incorporating aspects of popular religion. A sculptural installation, "La Cama" (1987) by Pepón Osorio, is essentially a shrine in the form of a life-size four-poster bed. The spirit honored is a woman named Juana Hernández, who cared for the artist as a child in Puerto Rico and influenced him deeply.
He has encrusted the posts of what might be her funeral bed with gems, adorned the headboard with artificial flowers and peppered the bedspread with hundreds of ribbonlike badges. In Puerto Rico these are commonly used to commemorate marriages, baptisms and school graduations. But in this context they bring to mind the tiny cut-metal ex voto images of body parts arms, legs, breasts, lungs called milagros, left at saints' shrines by those seeking cures. (A selection of such objects, from Puerto Rico, Mexico and Peru, is on display in the gallery.)
"La Cama" is a secular version of popular devotional art with roots in high art, and its bauble-based ornamentation makes it as dazzling as any Old World reliquary. When an interviewer once referred slightingly to Mr. Osorio's use of "fake pearls," the artist responded: "They're not fake pearls. They're not fake anything. They're plastic pearls. For many people plastic pearls are what they have and what they want." The people he was referring to was the audience for whom he makes his work, including the Latino residents of East Harlem. And in his comment he described in a nutshell the phenomenon of art that is simultaneously low and high, and beyond both.
"VOCES Y VISIONES: HIGHLIGHTS FROM EL MUSEO DEL BARRIO'S PERMANENT COLLECTION," El Museo del Barrio, 1230 Fifth Avenue, at 104th Street, (212) 831-7272, through Feb. 8. Hours: Wednesdays through Sundays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission: $6; students and 52+, $4; members and children 12 and under, free.