"I still think the social function of art is that kind of negative aesthetic. Otherwise there’s no social function for it."
In Pepón Osorio's Badge of Honor, two fabricated rooms become sites for a healing dialogue between an estranged father and son. Focusing on the life experiences of the incarcerated Nelson Sr. and his 15-year-old son Nelson Jr., the installation draws it's subject matter from a family that—like many families today—must weather trauma, distance, and cultural differences between parents and children. The two rooms are as visually different from one another as can be. The father's room is marked by a row of tight bars, behind which are only the most basic of items: a bench, a bucket, family photos, a pair of shoes, and some clothes. Starkly lit and exceptionally neat, the room is an exaggerated, highly theatrical portrayal of a jail cell. Across the adjoining wall is Nelson Jr's teenage bedroom, exploding with color and photographic images. In this environment, family photos are so completely incorporated into the decor that it's nearly impossible to pick them out from commercial products. With sports trading cards pieced together to produce wallpaper, a line of sneakers running the length of entire wall, and a mirrored floor which doubles the appearance of everything, Nelson Jr.'s room is a vision of consumer society through the eyes of youth. Parallel experiences despite their obvious physical differences, each room stages a heightened, dreamlike world that is the antithesis of the other. Staggering in its visual excess, the son's room is a vivid fantasy world where one might retreat to deny the grim reality of a family in crisis.
While the viewer is prohibited from entering either tableau, he or she is afforded access to a highly emotional conversation unfolding on opposite walls. The parallel rooms are stages for a twenty-two minute synchronized video conversation between father and son. Over the course of the work, Nelson Sr. and Jr. talk to one another, recounting memories, dreams, and disappointments. We continue to listen as the conversation becomes more and more heartfelt, sympathizing with the efforts of father and son to keep the family intact despite hardship. If there is any glimmer of hope that the family will persevere it is communicated metaphorically in the layout of Osorio's installation. The father's jail cell and the son's bedroom share a common wall. While this wall is also the thing that separates them, it is nevertheless a common denominator made possible by Osorio's particular brand of magical realism. The occasion of Osorio's installation provides an opportunity for a stronger bond between father and son. While separated by space and time, Nelson Sr. and Jr. share the space of Osorio's video installation and their experience of working with the artist. An aesthetic continuation of Osorio's former career as a social worker in New York City, Badge of Honor is as much a work for viewer's who encounter it as it is a common ground for the father and son who have made it possible. Fantastical in appearance and yet gritty for the way in which it deals with difficult subject matter and the lives of real people, Badge of Honor is a powerful allegory of contemporary family life.