Oscar Murillo: Casting Off The White Gloves
MFA Visual Studies candidate reviews Oscar Murillo's exhibition Forever Now: Painting in an Atemporal Age at MoMA
The walls and floor of the Museum of Modern Art’s show Forever Now: Painting in an Atemporal Age are vitalized by Oscar Murillo, 29-year-old Colombian-born artist based in London. On view December 14, 2014–April 5, 2015.
The selection of Murillo’s work at MoMA includes eight unstretched canvases in a heap on the floor. At first glance, the haphazard pile appears to be a specific and intentional arrangement—a sculpture built from paintings. However, the wall didactic discloses that these floor pieces are touchable, moveable, and interactive. In an environment where standing close to a work results in buzzers or reprimand, the impulse to ask a docent for permission might remain, and the opportunity to touch brings both hesitation and delight. Visitors pull and unfold each piece, run their fingers along the crudely applied paint, feel the canvas bend and flex, study both sides of the work, and even wear the canvases, wrapping up in a Murillo and snapping a selfie. After finishing their investigation, visitors re-pile the pieces in a new configuration—a new composition on the floor. Murillo activates visitors, literally pulling them into the work as both performers and exhibit designers, and the pile of paintings transforms into a participatory installation.
The didactic states: “by allowing his work to be touched by all, Murillo challenges—not without humor—the fact that contemporary paintings by some artists have become so valuable and so sought after that they cannot be touched or even closely examined by the average viewer.” This transgressive act has a tongue-in-cheek quality as the Murillo paintings hanging on the walls surrounding the pile of unstretched canvases remain relegated to the tradition of untouchability. Are we to assume that these works are any different than those on the floor? The text also nods to the recent explosion in market value of his work. Paintings that were purchased for four figures are being flipped at auction for six. By achieving this level of success in the art market, Murillo is able to permeate the upper class. Buyers believe they’re taking home a status symbol, but the work insinuates otherwise. He incorporates dust and dirt, walks on his work while making, folds and cuts his canvases, and paints with blunt implements, such as a broomstick. These acts question notions of preciousness, and in turn are critical of the very mechanisms and people through which they are being purchased.
Murillo’s work, similar to his life, has revolved around ideas not only of class, but of displacement, movement, and culture. In his paintings, words such as “yoga” and “milk” seem to take on more of a sense of cultural nostalgia or style than serving as explicit signifiers. They are removed from any context, displaced into singularity not unlike a sort of cultural logo. A sense of displacement is also evident in his construction of the final compositions. Canvases are cut into sections, laid on the floor, moved around and reconfigured, and then sewn together. The stitches and seams are left visible, as evidence of the process of restructuring. The dirt and dust also relate to the idea of displacement and global movement, and because dirt is ubiquitous, he describes it as a democratizing agent in the work. Touching Murillo’s paintings, there’s a mixed bag of sensation—they feel gritty, dirty, unctuous, thick, rough, sensual, and known. They don’t feel opulent, they feel familiar.
Murillo has been written off by some as a derivative Basquiat copycat whose fame was cultivated by collectors rather than critics and curators. After spending time with his work, and reading interviews with the painter, this appears to be a shallow discernment at best. Looking beyond his skin color and hair style, one finds a painter questioning classist access to art, carving out a place for performativity and visitor interaction within the walls of the institution, and redefining preciousness. It is extremely rare for work at MoMA to permit engagement on more than a passive level. Here instead is an exhibit that is tactile, kinetic, and thoroughly active. For those heavily indoctrinated with museum etiquette, simply put: the exhibit is a hell of a lot of fun.
installation view, Oscar Murillo, Forever Now: Painting in an Atemporal World, Museum of Modern Art, 2015. Eight works installed on the floor; oil, oil stick, dirt, graphite, and thread on linen and canvas, 2012-2014. photo: Rebecca Mackay Rosen Carlisle