Extraordinary hype preceded the New York debut of Oscar Murillo, a preternaturally gifted young artist, who got his M.F.A. in 2012 from the Royal College of Art in London. Born in 1986 in La Paila, Colombia, the scion of four generations of factory workers who made chocolate-covered marshmallows (Chocmelos) on the assembly line of the food company Colombina, Murillo moved to London as a child with his parents, who worked there as cleaners.
Murillo’s stitched and scribbly paintings, “contaminated” with words, dirt, dust, and studio debris, bear a vague resemblance to Rauschenberg’s and Basquiat’s; his sprawling installations with porcelain coconuts are on par with Gabriel Orozco’s work; and the communal events he organizes qualify as ethnic relational esthetics for a slumming art and fashion world. There were no paintings in this exhibition. Titled “A Mercantile Novel,” the show was more directly about immigration and displacement. Murillo transformed the gallery into a fully functional chocolate factory, duplicating an assembly line at Colombina and operating to the same standards as the real factory. The production existed behind a wall of shelves and lockers for the 13 imported workers. There were also live feeds of the Chocmelos being made, along with other videos by Murillo and the workers (these are all viewable online). Stacks of stainless-steel fruit crates in the center of the gallery were filled with the product, whose packaging bears the yellow smiley-face logo found on New York supermarket bags together with the Colombina logo, uniting the cultures.
A projection of the airplane that brought the workers to New York filled one wall, while another video showed Murillo’s mother asleep on the assembly line. His father’s certificate of employment was ensconced in a copper frame on a blue wall. A row of 30 Dom Perignon champagne boxes, covered with drawings of Jeff Koons’s Balloon Venus (an allusion to Koons’s limited-edition collaboration with Dom Perignon), was interspersed with five glass containers stuffed with packaging, tennis and golf balls, and marshmallows sealed in milk chocolate. The off-limits assembly line, producing 7,000 treats a day, could be glimpsed through the shelving or parted curtains whenever a worker entered or left.
It was a highly impressive debut. The logistics and expenses—born by Colombina, the gallery, and the artist—are mind-boggling. But regardless of who paid for the travel, housing, and salaries of the workers and the machinery, this was high-stakes gambling on a promising but brand-new career—or possibly on a new outlet for a company not yet in the U.S. market. Unlike Paul McCarthy’s 2007 chocolate factory at Maccarone gallery, which produced naughty $100 Santas, the Chocmelos here were given away free—their distribution tracked by an Instagram site. And if Murillo’s installation advanced the unholy merger of commerce and art, it also made us wonder who is exploiting whom.
A version of this story originally appeared in the Summer 2014 issue of ARTnews on page 90.