A Review of Oscar Murillo: Manifestation at David Zwirner, London
Upon entering David Zwirner, one is affronted by three large, deep-red canvases which occupy and overpower the primary wall of the main gallery with their assured presence. These new manifestation works at first push the audience away, asking the viewer to beguile in their pigmented facades from a distance; then following a pause, draws them in with textural details, liminal text and the jarring churnings of visceral brushstrokes. This is the general theme throughout Oscar Murillo’s latest exhibition; it is a ‘push and pull’ of intrigue, understanding, obscuring and redaction.
The newest, aesthetic Frankensteins demonstrate beauty in their stitches and powerful juxtapositions. Layers appear to be interwoven, captivating undulating surfaces rather than a sequence of flat layers. I couldn’t quite work out how Murillo had achieved this - perhaps that is the mark of the skilled artist. However, this question is a point of contention for the current Turner Prize Nominee, captured by the illustrious institutions of the contemporary art world while young and full of ideas but facing scrutiny for his quick ascension.
As I stepped upstairs, I was surprised by the smell of fresh oil paint. It wasn’t overwhelming but was an unintentional and playful addition to the space, it made me feel closer to Murillo’s studio, something I deeply wished for after the detachment of the red works. Four blue-hued manifestation works, flank the main upstairs gallery with sombre and rich velvet-like navy and black, punctuated by bright whites and fresh crimsons. Again, a wonderfully mature and selected palette by Murillo to compliment the collaged canvas of previous works, varying fabrics and papers. The large, blue more resolved paintings allude to a lengthy process and methodology, but leading to where? The large expressionist paintings initially struck me with majesty but had left me yearning for something more.
The namesakes of the exhibition, the manifestation works, are supposedly the highlight - the next step, however without the accompanying earlier works they would seem static and outdated. At the end of the main ground floor gallery sits a small wall-based structure: when tomorrow becomes yesterday. Below a wooden shelf heavily laden with black, tar-like oil paint, is a frantic red mass of repeated text. It is almost as if Murillo has peeled back the oil layer to reveal the intricacies underneath. This ties in nicely to another bridging work: perpetual state of being, which expanded upon the drawn elements in an expansive projection of illegible letters roaming across the wall with varying pace. The projection feels like an outpouring, what it must be like in Murillo’s head.
To the left of when tomorrow becomes yesterday, a bright and bold canvas is situated. It is more refreshing and more gestural than the first three - perhaps less varied in materials, but with just as much energy. An earlier news work, it shows more line-work beneath the weighty swathes of colour which were more erratic and gestural than the manifestation reds. Similar energy is evoked by the unstretched untitled upstairs, hung almost like a shower curtain showing the weighty mass of paint utilised. These individual works act as crucial articulations between the series and Murillo’s studio.
While I was familiar with Murillo’s painterly concepts prior to the exhibition, I hadn’t had much exposure to his installations and struggled to process the domineering six-tiered stadium-like structure in contrast to the canvases. There are painted surfaces, but they compete for attention with clay sculptures, stuffed clothing and by the sheer mass of wood. I sensed a commentary on migrants and transient populations from the corpse-like stuffed clothing and striking blue impasto waves, however, it all seemed a little obscured to me; although we must remember that Murillo is the aficionado of obscuring. There are implications of both urban and natural environments, rigidity and fluidity, the usual contrast and juxtaposing - however there is no punch, no pause, no pondering over something great, just speculation - sensing but not grasping.
The inclusion of silkscreens of Hans Haacke’s book The Chocolate Master was initially unclear, however further research has hinted to what Murillo may have been insinuating. Published in 1982, The Chocolate Master/Der Pralinenmeister was a critique by Haacke of the exploitative practices of Peter Ludwig and Irene Monheim; chocolate tycoons and avid art collectors. While this ties in with the ‘sense’ of subject, there is somewhat an irony in including it. The installation is quite inaccessible to those without a comprehensive contemporary art education, and the silkscreens are overpainted and only the bottom tier is visible. It is a strong message to obscure and one that is extremely relevant in our geopolitical climate. It is a passive nod to Haacke but nothing more.
In previous interviews, Murillo has been keen to point out his work is not activism, yet what is the point in creating politically aware art that does not incite action? Perhaps instead of using Hans Haacke, Murillo should take a look at Nicholas Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics and his own invaluable experiences as a child of Colombia and citizen of the global present. A gallerist present described Colombia as ‘a different headspace,’ an accumulation of information for the artist. Yet the gallerist was unsure whether Murillo would be returning anytime soon. I think he should reconsider.
Although this may seem critical of Murillo, this installation may be a tentative start of something more outspoken and a new chapter in the young artist’s career. While it still uses his signature fragments, thick impasto and symbolism, it is a significant departure from what he is hailed at being a master of: abstract expressionism. True, his paintings are powerful, visceral, arresting and every other adjective can ascribe to a large, pigmented painting. However, Murillo has the life experience, the tools and the artistic capabilities to push himself and his itinerant practice to become a significant participant in the geopolitical conversation, rather than a mere commentator or illustrator.
After observing the impasto-covered Haacke stadium of the downstairs installation, the two upstairs surge paintings came into focus. Another iteration of Murillo’s process and hailed as “a utopic and cautionary vision of contemporary geopolitics” by David Zwirner. The foaming ultramarines and viridian greens with oscillating waves encroach upon more commercial prints of bright pink Lego bricks, foreign newspapers and Sigma Polke references. However, it feels like a two-dimensional version of the installation but why was there a need for both? Are the surge paintings a more digestible and familiar form of the installation?
Manifestation feels like a new but comfortable iteration in Murillo’s studio practice. But is comfort where an artist should be? He has found his safe equilibrium of producing popular abstract expressionist works but with sufficient variations to seem new and exciting. For the artist in his early 30s this is not a resolution or a revolution as the title suggests, but a pause, a reconsidering before action. Murillo is occupied by travel, language, politics and globalisation, he has a clear agenda and interest, yet you have to read about it because the paintings won’t speak to you in anything more than a whisper. Liminality, temporality and obscuring are all wonderful techniques but at some point, there must be a revelation, and now the time feels right.
Written by Alison Poon, a Contributor to Arteviste