The rise of Oscar Murillo has been so meteoric that it is hard to approach his work in isolation from the hype now surrounding the 27-year-old artist. But Murillo’s latest exhibition at South London Gallery struck a subdued note that demanded an unprejudiced view. Significantly, there were no sizable examples of his stitched-together, abject expressionist canvases in this scattered, centerless installation. (Although there was night shift , an unstretched, draped black monochrome, which felt like an interloper.)
Murillo transplanted the bulk of the contents of his studio into the main gallery, yet the blanket impression was of the aftermath of a desultory Sunday afternoon craft or cookery class. Plastic chairs were stacked at the back of the room; workaday tables were strewn with clods of resinous gunk. Trays of corn and metal grinders indicated that these informel masses were, in fact, pulverized corn.
One sensed that a game was being played here, Murillo having vacated the stage and cast viewers as participants in the lackluster yet queasily bodily mise-en-scène. We were coaxed across a creaky patchwork of plywood sheets and a cruddy carpet of pulped and reconstituted biro drawings—thereby treading his work literally underfoot.
Three installations within this dirt-scape, “good times bad times fun times I-III” (2013), resembled giant chess sets, tempting us to maneuver their arrayed “pieces.” Yet the rules of the game were unclear. On each of three tables, a checkerboard cloth had been strewn with bottle caps, concrete balls and porcelain figurines. These last components were based on ancient Colombian pots, but also implied strange hybrids of bowling pins and Bellmer’s ball-jointed dolls.
Indeed, a sly ambivalence—a game of half resemblances—characterizes Murillo’s work. Artistic allusions, whether to nouveau réalisme or Post-Minimalism, are knowing but also nonchalant. His use of Scotch whiskey labels in the sprawling linear collage if I was to draw a line . . . (2013), for instance, mimics Motherwell’s cutting and pasting of liquor labels. Like Motherwell or his onetime student Rauschenberg, Murillo has sought to make art out of the unlovely or overlooked stuff of life—specifically his own life, as a Colombian-born immigrant to London. (Upstairs was a video—a casually shot vignette—charting the nocturnal rounds of a lottery-ticket seller in La Paila, the village where he grew up.)
Murillo not only utilizes foodstuffs and their packaging but hints at their metabolized end-state. (He has commented in the Independent: “Most painters are terrified of painting in the same space where they are eating, sleeping and defecating. This is my idea of how the work progresses.”) Whether in the mashed-up kernels or general grime and grit of the tableau, there was a lurking sense of waste, not least human waste, that formed part of a broader narrative of production, consumption and reclamation.
This narrative inevitably poses an analogy to the art market’s sudden and voracious consumption of the artist himself, as well as the potential for brass to turn to muck. A sense of haphazardness was further articulated by a sequence of lottery “tickets” hanging on wires in an upstairs gallery like developing photographs. Prizes were awarded to lucky ticket buyers. In this, there may be an acknowledgment of the luck inherent in art, of the gulf between intention and outcome, ambition and reality. Murillo’s art is not undeserving of the adulatory responses, but seems in its very make-up to highlight the spuriousness of the “game” of being an artist.