I needed a carrier bag to carry my Oscar Murillo press pack home with me on my bike. The man in the corner shop offered me a minuscule black one; when I asked for something bigger he demanded I purchase something. Feeling peckish I reached for a small bag of nuts and raisins and procured a more sizeable bright blue carrier. Afterwards I felt curious as to where the snack had been put together – it combined the usual mixture of cashew, brazil, unsalted peanuts and raisins, but also unusually included walnuts. Maybe it was a British factory, run on immigrant labour. The nuts inevitably must have been sourced globally – a network of importation converging on a depot. Its rare to feel it, but every commodity carries with it the shadow of a different reality – the reality of production by a global proletariat, the unseen labour force that capital prefers to render as invisible as possible. Production is rendered abstract – the term Marx used was reification. To be a Westerner is to live in a condition of blissful consumerist ignorance. Oscar Murillo’s art attempts to connect us with a different reality.
Despite having moved to London at the age of ten, Murillo still has one foot in Colombia where his extended family were employed in the local lollipop factory. The atmosphere of the factory runs through all of his work and his work is imbued with the vividness of the real, real surfaces without meaning created out of the purely functional. He’s obsessed with traces and marks that can resemble scraped metal or the scoured whorls left by a revolving machine, or the imprint of random patterns of paint onto cloth. His paintings are sliced up and stitched together in an almost completely functional way, like jerry-built hoardings or temporary repairs to a broken wall. He combines plastic and plaster and dirt and seems to revel in the liberating griminess and dirty splendour of his work. There’s no aesthetic hierarchy – in the South London Gallery only one painting made it onto the wall- the ominous, bat- like Night Shift (2013, oil stick and oil paint on canvas) [above]. The rest of the paintings were folded up neatly in piles, underneath tables, or spread out so that we could walk across them. Whilst in their use of materials Murillo’s paintings resemble sometimes the textures of Schnabel or Basquiat, they are only superficially expressionist. The paintings have a battered contingency; they are more like arenas for the wear and tear of passing traffic, the scars of their own making , becoming the index of a brutal reality. Across their surfaces Murillo often invokes the names of common foodstuffs – “chorizo”, “milk”, “mango”, like snacks consumed in a work break. Through basic gestures Murillo grinds his own self into the painting’s warp and weft.
Murillo employs some members of his extended family to produce his work, and has a strong sense sense of familial collectivity. He continuously recycles the materials from old installations, and this exhibition consists of tables with copper tops, low plywood platforms with functional troughs, workstations, sacks of corns and wooden jigs containing the ingredients of large inedible cornballs that resemble crumbling Franz West sculptures. Canvases on the floor are covered in paper mulch, and plaster sculptures based on ancient Colombian pots vie it out on a crudely makeshift chessboard with some concrete balls. Murillo is attracted to forms that are impersonal, basic, mute and lumpen. Inside the installations he organises events with his family, the public, and curious art collectors, usually involving food, yoga or bingo. This gregarious inclusiveness goes some way to tempering the works’ hidden sophistication; Murillo is well versed in the language of post-minimalism. Precedents like West or the installations of Dieter Roth allow him to transcribe the reality of the conditions he wishes to evoke into the gallery very directly. The detritus of work is everywhere, and the huge labour involved in production is palpable. Along a pencil line drawn along the wall he’s collaged a chain of labels and advertising of basic foodstuffs – such as Pride Vegetable Cooking Oil or Fufu flour. Whether this is ironic is unclear – it seems less a critique of commodification than a description of basic survival. Despite this the installation attempts to transform the trials of manual labour into something aesthetic, a world that is surprisingly rich in its various specificities, and enviably cohesive in its familial and collective bonds.
“The idea of labour and work is at the heart of my practice” Murillo has said in an interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist. Upstairs there’s a video, and in keeping with the impoverished textures of his paintings and installation, its an ad-hoc affair simply filmed on his i-phone. He follows a man around a small Colombian town who is attempting to sell lottery tickets, a low level job with breadline pay, but the man’s resilience and determination to carry on is affecting. At one point the camera slips and we see Murillo’s dreadlocked shadow on the ground – we’re suddenly aware of the artist’s presence and also that he’s riding a bike, in a friendly way, alongside a man who would perhaps prefer he wasn’t there. Murillo seems determined to stay true to the experience and people of his home town, and the video captures its atmosphere by simply being straightforward. Like the installations and paintings, the video documents another form of work.
Murillo makes installations because they frame his paintings; one is subliminally aware of the painterly elements in his installations. The colour for example is extremely carefully controlled, from the browns of the plywood to the white of the plaster pots and their blue collars made from old tin cans. The overall effect is lovely but with the attendant melancholy of a crumbling ruin, an abandoned workplace. The installation extends the logic of the paintings outwards, and allows Murillo to avoid seeing the paintings in a precious or in a formal way. The paintings have to come about with an abandoned, accidental congruity or at least the illusion of it, as their realism is dependent on the sense they’ve been formed by the impersonal hand of chance and contingent circumstance, vulnerable relics that seem to have been pulled directly from the street. The disadvantage of spreading outwards into the real is that qualitative judgments are harder to ascertain; it becomes not so much a question of how good an artist Murillo is, because here, Murillo’s art just is. It would be interesting to see Murillo’s paintings outside this context, whether they would stand up to their precedents Basquiat, Twombly and Rauschenberg. The paintings are close to being naive or tasteful and they seem to struggle with their own conceptually tidy post- minimalist aesthetic where materiality flirts with the decorative. In placing his paintings on the floor Murillo seems to be acting against his paintings status as super expensive commodities, and emphasises the paintings as mere off-shoots of a larger practice – just the manifestations of a process, just another way of working.
Work as a value in itself, the work ethic, is hardly controversial; it’s a value shared by both a communista and a member of the corporate one per cent. The value of work, its point and its purpose beyond earning a living, questions of exploitation or the Marxist idea of the worker alienated from the intrinsic value of his labour are questions that Murillo raises and leaves hanging. He seems to value the aspect of work that brings collectivity and togetherness and from this point of view the installation feels different to a lot of British art where the public tend to equate hard work with diligence and fidelity rather than the manifestation of an explosive energy. The contradictions of the commodification of the art work however, are here somewhat effaced. In placing his paintings on the floor Murillo seems to to be acting against his painting’s status as super expensive commodities, but he may yet be making them more elusive, more desirable. In the catalogue to his show at The Rubell Family Collection in Miami, Murillo has reprinted an earlier essay by the artist Liam Gillick entitled “The Good of Work”. A different sense of super-self conscious commodity awareness is at the core of current artist’s desire to come close to the context within which they work. Projection and speculation are the tools they reclaim in order to power this super-self-conscious commodity awareness”, Gillick writes. Murillo’s paintings, similar to the ones I was walking on, have sold at auction for four hundred thousand dollars, and American and European art collectors are queuing up to buy his work; it’s a sure fire investment whose worth is increasing daily. Is Murillo therefore, in this installation, resisting his collectors – or is he simply being true to his roots? Murillo wants to be part of a community, but does he have his own voice?
It’s perhaps the radical incompleteness of Murillo’s aesthetic, the sense of things being conjoined accidentally or not at all, the sense of immersion in a process and the helpless, jarring collision of elements that provide the basis of his language. Murillo’s strength as a painter could emerge through developing the paintings’ unusual boldness, by pushing their crudity and rawness. His paintings are vessels of potential energy, and the struggle for him is to make them more than comfort blankets or exotic upholstery. It will be interesting to see whether he can hold his own in a world that celebrates money and boredom.
Oscar Murillo is at the South London Gallery until the 1st of December.