Opinion

Oscar Murillo Made His Collector Cry

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Chocolate packages from Oscar Murillo’s recent exhibition at David Zwirner gallery (photo by Ben Sutton)

In a dispatch this weekend appearing in Artforum’s usually stultifying Scene & Herd blog, it was reported that artist Oscar Murillo had carried out an intriguing intervention at a party hosted by the Brazilian collector Frances Reynolds. Coinciding with the ArtRio fair, the celebration was meant to commemorate the conclusion of Murillo’s residency at Reynolds’s Rio de Janeiro mansion. And although a residency might connote a withdrawal from the world as usual, even a sense of artistic monasticism, Murillo turned the monk in the abbey into the skunk at the garden party, delivering a fiery speech that expounded upon Brazil’s “colonization”; in doing so he brought his host to tears and caused Tunga, a Brazilian artist represented by Luhring Augustine, to leave.

The speech’s turn came from the content of the residency itself, as Artforum correspondent Frank Expósito writes:

Upon arriving for the stay, Murillo had been struck by the fact that the house staff was predominantly black. He said he couldn’t ignore it. So the artist, dressed in a white jumpsuit, worked as a member of the house staff for the entirety of the residency.

If what preceded the speech is compelling (perhaps the most interesting work the artist has undertaken in his short yet meteoric career), the hectoring that followed his address at the Reynolds party beggars belief:

Guests tried to enjoy the outdoor party after the polemical address, but it wouldn’t be so easy. The once pristine jumpsuit, now dirty by the knees, swayed overhead as a reminder. Murillo stood firm amid a fray of questioning. “Do you even know who Paula Cooper is? Do you?” badgered collector Luiz Augusto Teixeira de Freitas, referring to successful social activists in the art world. “Do you know who Karl Marx is? Read it again,” pursued another. Murillo shook his head and responded to the questions about his integrity with more questions. “Do you know of any other artist coming from the working class in Latin America? Do you know how much Gabriel Orozco sells now?” The crowd could not be satiated. On my way out, David Zwirner’s Greg Lulay gave the artist a congratulatory hug.

I think it’s fair to say that Murillo’s labor-attuned gesture, though certainly not unprecedented in recent art history — Mierle Laderman Ukeles’s longtime Department of Sanitation residency and Fred Wilson’s “Guarded View” (1991) come to mind — represents a welcome transition away from the large and largely derivative canvases for which he has thus far been best known, and delivers more bite than the Chelsea chocolate factory that may have presaged this line of thinking.

And the community that so quickly lionized Murillo has more than earned his withering scrutiny, with Donald and Mera Rubell’s condescending remarks about the young artist in a New York magazine article this summer offering the most appalling example of the genre. (Sample quote from Mera Rubell: “People are always trying to figure out the power of the immigrant…The power of the immigrant is that they always show up. You don’t always know if you can deliver but you always show up. Oscar always shows up.”)

Unfortunately, his New York gallery, David Zwirner, did not have any more information about the Reynolds project when we reached out to them earlier today.

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