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Oscar Murillo, Social Altitude (2019), Installation View, Aspen Art Museum (all images courtesy Tony Prikryl)

ASPEN, Colo. — When Oscar Murillo learned that Monet had cataracts while painting his Water Lilies, he began to think about the disability in a societal sense. “What would it be like if there were social cataracts,” he proposed in a talk at the Aspen Art Museum, “so you couldn’t really see the present?” Cataracts warp and blur; they create friction between the immediate world and one’s memory. The disabled must ultimately return to their primal instincts, which for the artist, means engaging in unconstrained acts of mark making. Murillo’s new exhibition, Social Altitude, which is currently on view at the Aspen Art Museum, showcases five recent series that obliquely speak to this question, using obfuscation and movement to examine the complex conditions of a globalized world. The work explores structures of globalization and cultural production through gestures of materiality.

For Murillo, this gestural instinct is rooted in the physical experience of drawing. In his catalyst series, he layers canvases on the floor and uses a broom handle to transfer marks between them, gathering the force of his entire body to maneuver paint around the cloth in seismic motions. When the body moves, it attempts a gesture of autonomy, of rebellion against the structures that confine it. He considers these pieces “recording devices” for downloading and holding physical energy. Similarly, in his series titled manifestation (a word tied to political protests in several languages), canvases are soaked in pigment and layered with a collage of oil paint, graphite and written letters, which are then erased under additional layers of paint. In these scrawling, seductive tantrums, Murillo examines the raw form of mark making, in what he refers to as a “flooding of the surface.” The works speak to that which is buried, that which is nearly drowned but manages to stay alive. The strata of power, which, for the artist, often points to class divisions in a capitalistic world, is nodded to in the layers of his thick paintings, pieces obscured from the viewer. The works are simultaneously frenetic and anchored; they feel like a storm that’s found a place to land.

Oscar Murillo, Social Altitude (2019), Installation View, Aspen Art Museum

Oscar Murillo, Social Altitude (2019), Installation View, Aspen Art Museum

Oscar Murillo, Social Altitude (2019), Installation View, Aspen Art Museum

Much of Murillo’s work returns to the notion of restlessness. For his flight # series, the artist sketched drawings while in transit, recording a world wherein an airplane takes on the space of a studio. In the air, one is offered a reprieve from geographical borders. These spaces represent both a sense of agency and confinement, a neutral zone where one can freely gesture, and an understanding of an oppression that’s omnipresent. In a post-colonial, post-industrial world, these spaces of displacement can sometimes feel the most familiar. The equator — which passes through Murillo’s native country of Colombia and, therefore, carries a personal significance — becomes both a point of reference and a nebulous geographic construct. It is, evidently, just a line — but it is a line that stretches through innumerable cultures; a line from which one can position the self in infinite directions.

At 8,660 feet, Bogotá rests at nearly the same altitude as Aspen. Bogotá is an incredibly moody city, Murillo notes. The clouds hover in a specific way, and the night is particularly dark. Like Bogotá, Aspen withholds histories of violence beneath a veneer of nature. Murillo is interested in the notion of darkness and how it can be abstracted. In his ongoing Institute for Reconciliation series, he divides the gallery with black canvases, pointing to the darkness within the self, the anxiety of holding a negative space, and the desire to make the wall of a museum unsacred. The idea of cataracts is yet again evoked through this darkness — an act of cloaking that ultimately presents new ways of seeing.

Oscar Murillo, Social Altitude (2019), Installation View, Aspen Art Museum

Oscar Murillo, Social Altitude (2019), Installation View, Aspen Art Museum

One black canvas is incorporated into Murillo’s video performance, Industrial Park, which he filmed in Aspen in the summer of 2019 and which plays on a monitor in the corner of the gallery. In the film, Murillo swims through a river by the local Hunter Creek Trail, then crawls under the canvas on the riverbank. A woman’s voice narrates quotes from Brazilian avant-garde writer Patrícia Galvão’s Parque Industrial, which describes the female experience of living in 1930s São Paulo. “In the dirty latrines the girls spend a joyful minute stolen from the slave labor,” she says while Murillo heaves his body under the canvas, crawling through the surrounding foliage, “A shoeless foot is cut on the shivers of a milk bottle.” For Murillo, nature offers a reprieve from the suffocating forces of social inequality, until it doesn’t. In a field, the tarped artist discovers a blush chez lounge leaning against an upturned tree. He stuffs it with boulders until it bulges at the seams. The woman’s voice describes how the rich can sleep endlessly, and Murillo stuffs the couch for what feels like an eternity. When he’s finally done, he drags his canvas back to the riverbed and allows his body to be carried downstream. Murillo leaves the canvases out by the river to absorb the energy of their surroundings.

Oscar Murillo, Social Altitude (2019), Installation View, Aspen Art Museum

Social Altitude marks the first show in which the artist includes the color green in his work, nodding to the local Rocky Mountain landscape as well as his recent travels to South Korea and his native Colombia. His effort to document a network of cultural exchange is more concretely expressed in his ongoing Frequencies series, in which the artist has installed canvases at more than 250 schools across the globe, allowing students to intervene the blank surface with their individual forms of drawing. It seeks to form tactile connections between youth living in a digital world. Up to this point, the project has yielded an archive of nearly 20,000 canvases. After six months, the canvases are recollected and stitched together in sprawling collages. Diversity becomes represented not only in terms of geography but also materiality, as the colors, textures, and patina of the canvases are a manifestation of the environments they’ve been placed in.

Oscar Murillo, Social Altitude (2019), Installation View, Aspen Art Museum

On the night of the exhibition’s opening, Murillo spray painted the phrase “Vagabonds In Power” on the gallery wall, calling out to Fela Kuti’s historical performance of his song “V.I.P.” at the 1978 Berlin Jazz Festival, where the musician critiqued the Nigerian ruling class. “Molue bus driver, him get him power,” Kuti calls out to the crowd in a neon green jumpsuit, “Over him bus and conductor everywhere.” In it, he critiques the Nigerian ruling class in the pidgin English he used to address individuals spanning the African continent. Again, borders are blurred. The gesture of referencing Kuti’s performance forms a line between Aspen and Berlin; Berlin and Lagos; the lines continue to be rendered.

Social Altitude will continue at the Aspen Art Museum (637 East Hyman Avenue, Aspen, Colorado) through May 17, 2020.

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Cleo Abramian

Cleo Abramian is a writer based in Colorado. Her work has been published in World Policy Journal, Architectural Digest, The Orange County Register, and other publications.

One reply on “Oscar Murillo’s Scrawling, Seductive Tantrums”

  1. It’s fascinating to me how little of this fawning review is actually dedicated to seeing the paintings themselves. As so often these days, even abstract paintings, in order to be exhibited and reviewed, are to be supported by a vast superstructure of conceptual blabber – stories not remotely supported by visual evidence, claims having to do with political, social & other currently fashionable relevance, again not easily supported by the abstraction itself. These days also, the writer does not even have to strain too much with verbal gymnastics herself, as the artist customarily provides his own write-up covering the relevant analogies. And so it goes, zombie abstraction be damned… .
    P.S. I am certain that this writer can do way better than the above uncritical review of this artist’s project statement. For one, try to compare it to Joanne Greenbaum’s current show on LES… . Heck, try to compare it to ANY good abstract artist!..

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