Oscar Murillo: ‘I want them to come into the show and skip a heartbeat’
In the early years of this decade, Oscar Murillo, a 33-year-old Colombian artist who lives and works in London, became an art-world phenomenon. One minute he was doing a masters degree at the Royal College of Art, supplementing his income by working as a cleaner at London’s Gherkin building. Then word began to get around about his work: vibrant, clever paintings that spoke of cultural dislocation, using a bold range of techniques — montage, wordplay, abstract expressionism.
In the spring of 2012, Murillo’s work was noticed by Donald and Mera Rubell, the famed Miami-based collectors of contemporary art, who visited his studio and promptly bought all the works on display. Word spread more quickly and persuasively than ever. Murillo’s paintings, which had been selling for £2,000, £3,000, £5,000 on a good day, began to gain value. Five-figure sums were soon the norm. Then six-figure sums.
In September 2013, a Murillo painting, “Untitled (Drawings off the wall)”, went up for sale at Phillips in New York. With a low estimate of $30,000, it sold for nearly 14 times that amount: $401,000.
The invocation of Murillo’s name became shorthand for the volatility and impressionability of the booming global art market. The “Murillo effect” was solemnly 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.
The actual quality of Murillo’s art — most acclaimed it — became almost the least-discussed aspect of his emergence on the scene. Instead the young artist had briefly become the protagonist of an art-world morality fable. Was this kind of head-spinning ascent, more commonly associated with vulgar art forms such as popular music, appropriate? Was it decent?
I meet Murillo in his Tottenham studio, where he is preparing for a solo exhibition of his work at the Kettle’s Yard gallery in Cambridge. There is, in the art world at least, a sense of palpable curiosity around the event, Murillo’s first public show in Britain since 2013. He tells me that it has only been in the past few months that he has felt sufficiently distanced from those heady days to be able to process their effect.
Although the prices of his work at auction have remained steady, he has had to endure no little “negativity” in the backlash that followed his rise. “With hindsight, I ask myself, was it justified?” he says. “And I am not going to victimise myself. But I don’t think it was fair.”