Oscar Murillo: Selected Press

In this episode of A brush with..., Ben Luke talks to the British Colombian artist Oscar Murillo about the defining cultural experiences and influences of his life. Born in La Paila, Colombia in 1986, Murillo lives between Colombia and London. He studied art first at the University of Westminster and then at the Royal College of Art, both in London. Murillo first shot to fame in the art world with paintings that attracted huge attention in 2013—canvases with loose, scratchy, expressive marks, patches of pure colour, and daily dust and grime from the studio, scrawled with words such as "burrito", "yuka" and "chorizo". But he has also consistently made works in sculpture, installation, performance and film.

At the heart of his work is an engagement with language, with the nature of labour and production, with the movement of people and with fluid cultural identities. In this interview he discusses his major project Frequencies, in which children from more than 350 schools in 34 countries across the world were sent canvases that were affixed to desks, so that children could draw and write on them, consciously or unconsciously, over several months—and how the project relates to his own work.

Murillo talks about his ongoing interest in class as well as race, in relation to his Colombian background. He picks out the artists and musicians that have most influenced him, such as Picasso and Jean Dubuffet, and discusses his admiration of the work of late Nigerian curator Okwui Enwezor. And he answers the questions we ask all our guests: what are the essential rituals in his working life? If he could live with just one work of art, what would it be? And what is art for?

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Since March 2020, amid worldwide Covid-19 shelter-in-place orders, Oscar Murillo has been working out of an improvised studio in his hometown of La Paila, Colombia. But if the pandemic abruptly disrupted the artist’s otherwise peripatetic practice, the paintings it inspired feel far from confined. Murillo’s latest works, part of an ongoing series titled “manifestation,” 2018–, flout lockdown doom and gloom with their energetic gestures, vibrant colors, and monumental scale. Exuding painterly confidence with the majesty of Joan Mitchell’s landscapes and the urgency of Jean Dubuffet’s scratch marks, Murillo’s spirited bursts of cerulean blue, red, white, and black defy the grim subtext of their creation.

Like much of Murillo’s multifarious oeuvre, the “manifestation” paintings evoke themes of social unrest. Seen in France, where the works’ title commonly describes a large public demonstration—a right (and rite) exercised with fervor and regularity by French citizens— these paintings read as massive abstract protest banners. Three of the largest paintings on view (among them the largest manifestation to date, measuring more than thirteen feet wide) hung on adjacent walls under a skylight in the gallery’s main space, their presentation recalling the encircling, naturally lit installation of Claude Monet’s Water Lilies, ca. 1915–26 at the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris. Instead of surrounding the viewer with calming impressions of water, sky, and flora, Murillo’s paintings formed a rousing expressionistic panorama.

While the “manifestation” paintings allude to politics, they are less didactic than some of Murillo’s previous canvases, notably those featuring bold spray-painted words. More recently, the artist began removing text from his compositions. Across the nine “manifestation” paintings on view, all dated 2019–20, only a few unintelligible traces of orange spray-painted letters were visible, the bulk having been covered by a thick and vibrant overpainting. Layers, cuts, and seams are essential to these composite paintings; Murillo created the compositions on top of in-progress canvases shipped from his London studio to La Paila, where he stitched them together with scraps of velvet and linen. The patchworked supports feature looping calligraphic strokes made with a wooden stylus, amorphous oily paint stains, and spray-painted words. On top of all this, Murillo has applied more paint using oil sticks and other tools. Furiously working the oil sticks down to nubs, he ground the ends into the canvas as if stubbing out cigarettes. Wide flat swaths of rolled paint provide a stark contrast to the rugged oil-stick zigzags and butts. Though the letter fragments barely register as such beneath this heterogeneous thicket of overpainting, Murillo’s message is clear: In desperate times, actions speak louder than words.

Instead of text, a graphic floral motif hinted at some unintelligible outcry uniting the nine paintings on view. Roughly bisecting each patchwork support, long thin strips featuring silk-screened red flowers divided the compositions either vertically or horizontally. The pattern was inspired by the cover of a book on cherry blossoms, but the red-printed fabric conjured diverse sociopolitical references: The kerchief in the World War II–era WE CAN DO IT poster came to mind, but so did the armbands worn by Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution in China. Ultimately, however, the strength of Murillo’s paintings lies less in their attachment to a particular crisis, past or present, than in their ability to visualize and valorize action as a necessary response.

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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.”

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LONDON — When he was a boy, Oscar Murillo told his best friend he was moving to London, but his buddy refused to take him seriously: Their tight-knit community in southwestern Colombia was the sort of place families stayed for generations, where almost everybody worked at the candy factory that dominated the town’s economy.

The news, however, was true. In the 1990s, the 11-year-old Oscar left La Paila, Colombia, and arrived in East London, where his parents took jobs as office cleaners.

Speaking little English and having been displaced, he took refuge in drawing. These early scribblings pointed Mr. Murillo to painting, which in turn led to a multimedia art practice and, in 2019, to his winning the Turner Prize, one of the art world’s most prestigious honors.

But the memories of La Paila, and of the succor he found in those early doodles, still inform his work, which now hangs in major museums around the world. His canvases, multilayered patchworks of color that can also include glued grime and supersize Spanish words, now fetch $300,000 or more at auction.

“My work is a social detonator,” said the soft-spoken Mr. Murillo, a way for the son of working-class immigrant parents to blast through the barriers surrounding a social class that typically denies entry to people like him. “It’s a way to infiltrate the system.”

While some might see a contradiction or even hypocrisy in an artist earning so much to send a socially conscious message, critics see it differently.

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At the age of thirty, the London-based artist has been a market phenom for several years, but he may feel that he still has something to prove. In his second solo in New York, Murillo comes on like a house afire with big, heavily stitched, messy but strangely elegant paintings that feature fugitive antique images, including one of a marching band; many handmade books of furiously scribbled drawings and personal snapshots; and an immense installation. The latter, entitled "A Futile Mercantile Disposition," deploys steel and PVC pipe in frameworks supporting metal shelves or bunks, draped with swatches of black-painted canvas and linen. There are hints of social animus. But Murillo's chief motive seems to be art about art, with a debt to the Germans. Imagine a mashup of Beuys, Polke, and Kiefer, spun by a d.j. who is high on something.

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Conceived by London-based, Colombian-born artist Oscar Murillo, Frequencies is an ongoing project that has developed according to a timeframe of semesters and school years.

It is also a global project. Since 2013, young students in more than 20 countries have had canvases fixed to their desks so that they could doodle, scribble, write letters, paint and draw. The results vary dramatically: love notes next to abstract images, pop references next to palimpsests so dense they can hardly be read. At times, the canvases look subtle and sophisticated, at others simple and innocent. Together, they present us with a vivid and mysterious visual map of student experiences around the world. Murillo's collaborators on Frequencies are writer and producer Clara Dublanc as well as his parents, who visited many schools in advance of choosing them for inclusion. A publication created with graphic designer Olu Odukoya and published by David Zwirner Books documents the first installment of the project.

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Continuing his process of intricate, labor-intensive installations and performances, Oscar Murillo has set up shop at the Alexander Hamilton Custom House on Bowling Green, bringing his new work, Lucky Dip.  The performance, which places a series of laborers at the service of his own aesthetic and political interests, sees the artist reprising his interests in national identity, globalized labor and their exchange with the world of contemporary art.

Mere feet from the southernmost tip of Manhattan, the Hamilton Custom House for years served as a commercial point of entry to the United States, and was the seat of the first federal agency established by a fledging United States in 1789.  From this point, taxes on imported and exported goods were paid, and the city's ports, where countless goods changed hands, were serviced and maintained, effectively becoming a major seat of the young nation's quickly growing economic clout and international interests.  By his selection, Murillo offers an intriguing turn, filling the antiquated spaces of the historical site with an elaborate corn processing site, a good that factors heavily in the narrative of American economics, particularly in its context as a good of the "New World," taken from native peoples and sold internationally, a generative seed of exploitative labor in the nation.

Here, Murillo employs a series of assistants to grind corn and package it, soundtracked by the faint tones of a balladeer on the steps of the building.  Packaged as "Mighty White" corn (a not-so-subversive nod to the history of corn and trade in the Americas, not to mention its context produced in New York City), Murillo's work here renders the hard labor and efforts of workers in corn production visible, bringing the wage-labor involved in the creation and dissemination of global foodstuffs directly before the visitor.  Placing the intensive operations of performed manual labor at the footsteps of the American economic empire, the artist's work is a strong follow-up to his similar work at David Zwirner last year, albeit considerably more biting in tone and execution.

The show will continue to run through the 22nd.

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Oscar Murillo, a Colombian-born Londoner, still just 29, has had a remarkable rise to prominence.

In 2012 he was getting up at four every morning to do a cleaning job to support his work as an artist; in 2013 his paintings—teeming with loose, scratchy, expressive marks, patches of pure colour, and daily dust and grime from the studio, scrawled with words such as burrito, yuka and chorizo—started reaching six-figure sums. The following year they were shown at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and, right now, his black collaged canvases hang, like ominous flags, over the entrance of the Venice Biennale, the art world's most prestigious exhibition.  

Murillo is well aware that eyes will be upon him when his show opens tomorrow at the London gallery of David Zwirner, one of the world's leading international art dealers. "They call it the Frieze slot," he says with a laugh. "And with that you maximise attention, because people fly from all different parts of the world to come to the fair and the shows around that time." But he's undaunted and sees it as a great opportunity. "It will be interesting because it is almost like the first show after a period that was very turbulent."

We meet at a Colombian café in Seven Sisters, near where Murillo lives with his partner and two young daughters, and close to his new studio, a vast warehouse tucked in a quiet backstreet nearby. Murillo eats here nearly every day, he says, but not the Bandeja Paisa, a Colombian speciality we share—a plate of rice and beans, avocado salad, chorizo, steak and belly pork. "It's like a heart attack," he says. "I try not to have it so often."

It's a fitting lunch, however, because Murillo's Colombian background underpins almost everything he does, infusing his work in various guises. He was born in La Paila, a village in western Colombia, where his parents both worked in local factories. His father was from an indigenous Colombian family and both his mother's parents were Afro-Colombian. "In the Nineties, despite all the negativity that exists around Colombia through the Eighties, I couldn't have had a more idyllic upbringing," he says. "And I think that was due to the fact that it was a very rural existence—the sugar fields, the rivers. I guess, in retrospect, one romanticises."

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En la mayoría de las telas de Óscar Murillo destaca a menudo, sucia, pero llamativamente, una palabra que es alimento. Milk, chorizo, pollo, mango, yuca… Un vocablo que asoma y se impone. Una voz dentro de la obra que muestra la razón más profunda de su rabia artística: encontrar el lenguaje. Las palabras en suave español tropical que quizá dejó en los lejanos ecos de La Paila, su pueblecito del Valle del Cauca (Colombia) donde nació en 1986.

Sus padres cambiaron la inestabilidad de aquel país y aquella región que supuraba caña de azúcar por la gris y más segura neblina del East End londinense a finales del pasado siglo. Tenía 10 años cuando llegó a Inglaterra. Su padre se dedicó a limpiar oficinas. Él, con el tiempo, también. Aunque lo compaginaba con los estudios de arte que cursó en la Universidad de Westminster. Hoy, a sus papás, les cuesta hacer la cuenta de sus progresos. Los apenas ocho euros que podían empezar ganando a la hora por tragarse el polvo de las moquetas desgastadas y limpiar los cristales salpicados de gotas ya sin hollín en la ciudad de Charles Dickens se han multiplicado, con mucho sacrificio, en los 356.000 euros que, dicen, pagó en 2013 Leonardo DiCaprio por uno de los cuadros de Murillo en una subasta.

Aquel radical salto a la fama fue seguido de acusaciones: se decía que el coleccionista Charles Saatchi había inflado el mercado con la compra de ocho obras de Murillo. En un reportaje televisivo, el artista mismo decía mostrarse en contra. "Puedo estar en desacuerdo sobre cómo funciona el mercado, pero yo no estoy aquí para satisfacer a nadie". Carlos Urroz, director de Arco, cree que la explosión Murillo es justa, pero aconseja serenidad: "El crecimiento en el mercado se puede deber a causas imprevisibles. Pero una vez se da, la consolidación dentro de él depende en gran parte del artista".

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LONDON—Before a standing-room crowd at Christie's here last month, the bidding opened on an abstract painting filled with black scratching, "Burrito" scrawled across the top in bright yellow. The auctioneer announced that there were already 17 telephone and absentee buyers vying for the canvas, made three years ago by Oscar Murillo, who just turned 28.

While Mr. Murillo is little known outside clubby contemporary art circles, and he has his share of skeptics, his fans have called him "the 21st-century Basquiat." That night, after fierce competition, "Untitled (burrito)" sold for $322,870, more than six times its high $49,000 estimate. Only two years ago, Mr. Murillo, who was born in Colombia, was waking up at 5 a.m. to clean office buildings to cover his expenses at the Royal College of Art in London. Now, he is represented by David Zwirner, one of the world's most prestigious galleries, and when a choice canvas comes up at auction or through private sale, it can fetch more than $400,000.

The story of how a young artist like Mr. Murillo soared from struggling student to art star—courted by blue-chip dealers, inundated by curators requesting a work for a museum exhibition or biennial—reflects the way investing in contemporary art has become a gamble, like stocks and real estate. Collecting works by rising artists like Lucien Smith, Jacob Kassay, Sterling Ruby or Mr. Murillo is a competitive sport among a growing number of collectors betting on future stars.

On a recent stop in New York, Mr. Murillo sat in an office in one of David Zwirner's Chelsea galleries, talking over plans for his first show there, an ambitious combination of performance and installation opening on April 24. Wearing scruffy jeans, a T-shirt and a black baseball cap, this usually laid-back artist bristled when asked what it was like to be so in demand, knowing how fickle the art world is. "I don't like to think about it," he replied, staring soberly at a cup of tea.

For Mr. Murillo, celebrity cuts both ways. He reluctantly conceded that the attention is flattering and something that hundreds of young artists could only dream of. But he knows that being thrust in the spotlight at such a young age is risky.

"This is a market hungry for the players of the future," Allan Schwartzman, a Manhattan art adviser, said. "But almost any artist who gets that much attention so early on in his career is destined for failure. The glare is simply too bright for them to evolve."

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