(Original photoshop based on screenshot via the New York Times)

I know what you’re thinking. There can’t be a ‘how to talk about Oscar Murillo’ because we don’t have a decade or so of commentary, he’s too new to have talking points. He’s 28 for God’s sake, you protest.

And yet, if you’ve seen his name in print, it’s likely you already know how to talk about Murillo, because the chatter is coming down from high places. So let’s go!

Say that he’s difficult

He’s difficult because that’s what David Zwirner was looking for when he found Murillo. And David Zwirner is a star maker: if he’s looking for someone who isn’t easy, then whoever he gets will not be easy. Never mind if the Rubells found him first and liked him because he’s a sort of Basquiat but “not even on drugs.”

It’s important, when an artist makes complex, incomprehensible art, that you give them lots of difficulty points. It’s also important if he scribbles.

No, seriously: you risk being spoken down to if you dismiss a scribbler. Think about how we usually talk about them: Cy Twombly was notoriously difficult. Christopher Wool, an oft-times high-quality scribbler, is likewise beloved of eggheads and egghead wanna-bes. And many celebrated conceptual drawings by snob’s-best-friend, Sol LeWitt, were “scribbles.”

So just what is it that conflates a gestural temper tantrum with intellectual difficulty? Honestly, I can’t say. To quote Woody Allen’s Shadows and Fog: “I know what I think but I don’t know how to put it into words. Maybe I could get a little bit drunk and dance it for you.”

Get down ‘n’ dirty with autobiography

Another thing that makes folks say that Murillo is a difficult artist is that he really is! How refreshing is that? Perhaps not very since his installations look like someone tore through a lot of packaging in a sweaty attempt to locate assembly instructions and gave up having found none. Perhaps this is why Los Angeles Times writer David Pagel called one of his pieces “a mannerist mess.”

The problem with art that isn’t easy is that you’ll have to get serious in order to understand it, and that can be really boring. Murillo’s deliberately ungainly installations/performance pieces reference his autobiographical path from Colombia, where he was born into an extended hard-working family (“My father was a mechanic in a sugar cane factory and my mother worked for a candy factory: we had a sweet life!”), to London, where he has rocketed to stardom. You’ll have to remember to care about all that while you look at half-finished canvasses and crates and videos of people dancing.

His titles say it all, and not in so many words, but in many, many words. Like “if I was to draw a line, this journey started approximately 400km north of the equator” wherein, by the way, according to the press release, he set about “mobilising the physical remnants of distinct social situations” and exposed “some of the contradictions and complexities apparent across socioeconomic, racial and cultural boundaries.”

Nothing easy-peasy about “socioeconomic, racial and cultural boundaries.” Only the really keen intellects can savor the deep, deep uncomfortable irony of pieces like “animals die from eating too much – – yoga,” and “The Cleaners’ Late Summer Party with Comme des Garçons” because they bring “the help” into the artwork, and also to the opening party! The rest of us just want to go home.

Which may be why he’s known right now in the United States for painting and in Europe for his in-your-face installations. Americans can dig some scribbling and can get down with some cool mirror-reflected lettering and street decay style collage elements, but stick us in a gallery full of involved story-telling complete with class tensions and, honey, we start looking for the exit.

Go ahead and talk money

More striking even than Murillo’s difficulty would be talk of his swiftly soaring prices. In earlier days, when the press was not so market-savvy and your average art consumer was just a benighted gawker in a museum, one would never have this talking point in their party bag. But now we do.

Thank the press: ever more bold-faced in their crass action pursuits, your lay publications (those not directly art market related) have come to address this poor young artists’ prices almost exclusively — often skipping the nod to difficulty!

I myself find this tasteless. And very entertaining too. Especially since a lot of hot air is given to protecting Murillo’s market with attempts to suppress just this sort of pecuniary prurience — all in the heroic effort to halt the inevitable onslaught of sp-sp-sp — speculators (sweat flies from forehead). Speculators, mind you, are the evil force who stand accused of branding him the “next Basquiat” even though the label has been dangled ever since the Rubells installed him in their summer home and had him make 40 paintings for them lickety-split.

Basquiat case

Have I said “Basquiat” twice already?

People, and by people I mean everyone (gawkers, taste-makers, collectors, and speculators), are always looking for the next Basquiat because he was funny and cool and had a fascinating life story. Basquiat continues to place in Artnet’s top ten auction earners, sitting at number four in November, 2013. Basquiat made work that actually looks good: gritty, compositionally-challenging and opaque, but also fun, daring, and colorful. It is said that Basquiat paintings which contain the color red and a crown sell for higher prices at auction.

Oscar Murillo, like Basquiat, makes work that speaks to class issues. Like Basquiat, he had a difficult path to early success. Also like Basquiat, Murillo’s paintings are gritty, colorful, and make use of words and collage-style compositions that are exciting and have what auctioneers like to call “wall power.” But, honestly, that about sums up the Basquiat case. The comparison is otherwise pretty empty.

Oh, and the hair.

Final note

It’s easy to yap about the pitfalls of a too-speedy rise in auction prices, and to express concern while standing, arms folded, in a gallery that is ironically pushing a very young artist through its star-maker machinery. It’s harder, though, to actually take the time to build an understanding of the artist that will withstand and deflect those risks. Here’s to the ardent hope that dealers and collectors will spend more time actually looking at the work, not for which former favorite it reminds them of, or what authenticity club they’d like to be a part of, but for what it is, and what it can be, and what it will have been.

Oscar Murillo: A Mercantile Novel opens April 24 at David Zwirner (519 West 19th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan).

Independent curator, Cat Weaver is the Brooklyn-based writer and editor of The Art Machine, a blog that covers the art market in all of its gossipy glory. Formerly Cat wrote How To Talk About Art for Sugarzine,...

5 replies on “How to Talk About Oscar Murillo”

    1. Artrank! That is hilarious! Thank you. I’m even more encouraged by the fact that I am familiar with only about 8 of the artists! I think we should start our own. We’ll call it “RankArt”. The list would probably be the same!

  1. As a dealer that needs to make sales I understand the premise for the comparison, but I don’t think Oscar is comparable to Jean Michel. Maybe if Oscar ran with Damien Hirst and his paintings didn’t seem so void of meaning.

    Afterall JMB created this stream of conscious painterly style, but the elements told a story. Oscar writes ‘Mango’ on an overworked area of canvas, and I don’t see the relationship. I think his ability to challenge what we’re used to seeing as far as conventional canvas and borders/shapes is interesting but the content hits a lot of flat notes when compared to important artists (which he is being compared to by his dealers).

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