Millennial blue-chip artist Oscar Murillo understands this political and social moment we are living in, mainly because his art, artistic technique and career trajectory are influenced by the very ambivalent nature of our inherent social and political instincts.
TEXT: Reena Devi
IMAGES: Courtesy of the artist and David Zwirner
Controversial art world phenomena and young artist Oscar Murillo made headlines at the end of last year as one of four Turner Prize winners. The artists Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Helen Cammock, Tai Shani and Murillo had written to the jury appealing to be considered as a collective “to make a statement in the name of commonality, multiplicity and solidarity—in art as in society.” The judges acquiesced, awarding the UK prize to all four artists nominated, who agreed to share the prize money. The move was met with quite a bit of divisiveness as art critics and netizens debated whether it was timely or a publicity stunt to draw attention to an increasingly irrelevant award.
This tension between raising public awareness or merely seeking public attention comes across in Murillo’s work with an ambivalence that is impossible to miss. One of his artworks with exactly such enigmatic tension is día mundial de las aves migratorias (2017–18), comprising oil stick, graphite, and spray paint on canvas and linen. The title is a direct translation of World Migratory Bird Day—rather apt given the depiction of a small wooden boat filled with people trying to paddle towards a larger ship against a blackened and chaotic mixture of red and blue hues.
The artwork seems to illustrate the uncertain plight of refugees, an ongoing crisis heightened by current lockdowns and travel restrictions. If so, is it a depiction that raises concerns stemming from the artist’s own sincere preoccupations or part of the bandwagon of blue-chip contemporary artists creating art about the refugee crisis? The ambivalence refuses to go away, no matter how much cynicism the viewer discards in viewing the painting. Yet in itself, this is an effective technique, rendering the viewer uncomfortable, calling attention to their own impulses and roles in these issues.
As such, Murillo is one of the most politically engaged artists of our time, with regards to his subject matter, technique and even career trajectory.
The 34-year-old artist, who was born in Colombia and lives in London amongst various places, earned his BFA in 2007 from the University of Westminster, followed by his MFA in 2012 from the Royal College of Art. His diverse artistic practice includes paintings, works on paper, sculptures, installations, actions, live events, collaborative projects, and videos. His body of work tends to reflect the theme of cultural exchange, such as the diverse movement of ideas, languages, everyday items and more.
Murillo’s art is described as conveying a “nuanced understanding of the specific conditions of globalisation and its attendant state of flux, while maintaining the universality of human experience.” His work is known as “vibrant, clever paintings that spoke of cultural dislocation, using a bold range of techniques—montage, wordplay, abstract expressionism.”
However, it is his path to becoming a blue-chip artist, attached to mega gallery David Zwirner no less, which makes him one of the most politicized contemporary artists of our time. His meteoric rise from a postgraduate student cleaning the Gherkin Building as a side hustle to catching the interest of famous Miami art collectors Donald and Mera Rubell to becoming an art market hit is something of an art world phenomenon.
When his paintings began to sell at increasingly high prices; from lower end four figure sums to five figures, then to six figures with Untitled (Drawings off the wall) (2011) selling for almost 14 times its low estimate at US$401,000 through auction house Phillips in 2013, the artist became synonymous with the characteristic quirks of the recent global art market boom.
The “Murillo effect” was reportedly “cited to describe a range of phenomena associated with the boom: the opportunity to make substantial sums of quick money by ‘flipping’ the work, or buying low and selling high; the power of, and suspicions surrounding, art-world hype; the possible burn-out of talented-but-callow artists who were achieving too much, too young.”
In spite of the controversial hype and divisive discourse, the artist is not shying away from the political, continuing to create art that is socially engaged. His consistency does seem to indicate some sort of authenticity. For his upcoming solo show aptly titled “News” at David Zwirner’s outpost in rue Vieille du Temple, Paris, the artist presents a series of paintings created this year while in quarantine in his hometown of La Paila, Columbia, as the country and most of the world went into lockdown following the spread of COVID-19.
Like many creatives who use this period of restriction and isolation as a chance to push their own artistic and intellectual boundaries, Murillo set out to produce some of his largest and most elaborate works, filled with his typical hues of reds and blues but this time with dense tones and aggressive brushstrokes, almost akin to a primordial energetic release. There is also a collage effect with sewn together fragments of older canvases, velvet and linen, creating a varied textured surface for his painting. The series also imbues letters or words such as “power,” “law” and “news” painted and then removed, leaving a slightly visible trace.
The paintings bring to mind the very nature of contemporary public discourse and systems of authority with their illegible or concealed narratives. The series also reminds us that we live in a society today, where every thought, idea and insight, be it incisive or irrelevant, is akin to screaming into a sock that is inevitably discarded. His abstraction certainly captures the feeling of screaming into a void rather presciently. After all, if there is any artist who can effectively understand the very essence of society in this political moment, it is an artist who has been politicised by our baser social instincts.