Oscar Murillo

Text by Christabel Stewart

Photography by Stefan Simchowitz

Born in 1986, Oscar Murillo came to london from colombia when he was 10. Since graduating from the Royal College of Art’s MA in 2012, Murillo’s work has been gaining particular momentum. He often blends various aspects of an artistic studio practice with remnants of familiar social situations – yoga, bingo, eating and dancing – creating environments whose inviting inclusiveness belies the socioeconomic and cultural complexities Murillo draws out. He spoke to Christabel Stewart on the phone while visiting LA to plan a new project.

Christabel Stewart Have you been on the road for long?
Oscar Murillo I’ve been travelling since the early summer, really. I was back in London around the Frieze art fair, and before that, in mid-August, when I worked on a show for the Serpentine. It’s been good to move around a lot and not just be in the studio.

CS A sense of mobility seems key to how you make, think about and show your work. Canvases are shown folded, piled up, or spread out on the floor. I’ve seen them restretched, hung loosely or, memorably, made into a waste bin for takeaway cartons during a “catered” event. This must mean that they’re cheaper to transport around the world, or post even – is that a consideration?
OM In the beginning it was, very much so. For the first show I was invited to do in Berlin – it must have been 2009 – I was making heavy wall sculptures out of cement. As a new artist, without a gallery, I made the arrangements myself for it to be collected by FedEx. The piece arrived in Berlin totally broken. In a spirit of resourcefulness, I reconstituted the work, so it was fixed in time for the show, but I realised I couldn’t work like this; I had to rethink my strategy. It’s then that the work began to shift. The next outing was here in LA, where I did a group show. The gallery said outright: “You know we don’t have a lot of money.” So I thought I’d fold the canvases. I said: “I’ll send them over folded.” They couldn’t believe that. I did it and it worked really well. A kind of thinking that was also about the environment, the surroundings I find myself in – that began to infiltrate into the work. The freedom to move things about is essential to what I’m asked to do. There is also the question of how you deal with having a studio practice when you have to travel so much. How do you adapt your working context to make sure whatever you’re doing doesn’t get affected by the demands of a busy schedule?

 Are you interested in the freedom and exchange offered by technologies, especially the internet?
OM Generations get marked for certain things. Right now, regardless of our conversation about art, social media and the internet is one of the biggest things that gets the world moving around incredibly fast. But, to me, technology is simply a tool to facilitate other things. Technology moves on, so I find it hard to think I have to embrace and make work about the internet. Because simply, it’s there, it’s going to continue to be there, get worse or, potentially, become more efficient. I think it would be a mistake for me as an artist to find any more of a subject in that.

CS Why are you in LA right now?
OM I got invited to do a show at a new non-profit institution called The Mistake Room. I’m inaugurating the space. 2014, perhaps, will be an important year for me, and the idea of being in the studio making paintings – it’s just not going to happen. If I were to resist all these very interesting projects and invitations that are coming my way, I think the context and the development of my work would suffer. So the show at The Mistake Room, which is called Distribution Centre, deals with exactly that. It deals with doing a show in an incredibly industrial part of the city, downtown LA. It deals with social mobility, the idea of migrations, migrant workers and economic migration. And I want it to be closer to the reality of the practice itself, the realities of wanting to make, say, paintings, and wanting to be active. The show is on for a month, and for that time there will be an intense processing of material. Processing canvases and producing paintings are two different things in my work.

CS That’s an interesting distinction to make. Some people refer to you as a painter, which seems only a part of what you do.
OM Yeah, processing canvases is essentially working with materials and developing a surface. That surface needs to be physically manipulated for a while, to have gone through a process of development. This show is a chance to make and finalise paintings, so there is a stage of giving each individual canvas time and consideration, and composing a painting. There are different rhythms and frequencies.

CS When I got an invitation to one of your exhibitions, Dinner at the members club? Yes! i’ll have a black americano first pls., at Carlos/Ishikawa, despite the clear humour in the title, I initially thought I’d been invited to dinner. Actually, I had in a way, as your family cooked an amazing meal for the gathering afterwards. But I was misreading all the same.
OM Yes! There was another show that continued this “invitation” title and tone, though the shows were very different from each other. The second one, at Isabella Bortolozzi’s gallery in Berlin, was called Ramón how was trade today? Have a break… Sit! Enjoy the food, but you’re not welcomed at the table.

CS So it implied both participation and exclusion. Are you interested in hierarchies?
OM Oh, I am absolutely interested. But what I’m not interested in is being didactic. Taking sides or making a statement, or being patronising towards one or the other, somehow. It’s mostly about posing a question and letting an audience sit as they wish within that structure. I think that’s more successful.

CS I know you worked with Comme des Garçons. In what capacity?
OM My first encounter with Comme came two years ago, in the famous Dover Street Market, where a lot of their merchandise is sold. It was my first encounter with that kind of world. Purely by coincidence, a friend of mine invited me to have coffee there and for the first time I saw the beautiful place of fashion and clothing. A few months later, when I was in New York, Ronnie Newhouse, who’s the art director, came across my work and was taken by a couple of paintings. She proposed a collaboration.

CS You were invited to participate in their advertising?
OM I was very hesitant at first, because I wasn’t sure how much I wanted to engage with that aspect, and I was at such an early stage in my career. It didn’t seem clear if it was a good thing to do. But soon after, the Serpentine invited me to do a performance, and things began to fall into place and I pulled myself together, and the two invitations became perfect for the project that eventually happened.

CS So a campaign came into being, and you also commented on it through a gallery opportunity?
OM Yes. For me, there was a kind of juxtaposition as to what the Serpentine as an institution stands for. Its locality, its status as a kind of flagship of high culture in London. Comme des Garçons have a similar structure. I wanted to consider these in relation to my cultural background. So the idea became about how to pull these things together in a way that also spoke specifically of where I come from and where I am going, and the people I have a relationship with. The project was titled The Cleaners’ Late Summer Party with COMME des GARÇONS, and was basically trying to re-enact something that we in the Latin American community did many years ago. These very popular summer festivals and Christmas parties were organised for the cleaning community in London. The Serpentine have their own summer party, known to be incredibly lavish, drawing together the crop of society, high culture people and celebrities.

CS Did the gallery like the suggestion?
OM When I initially proposed the project, they said if you want to use “summer party”, you have to change it slightly. The words are already taken by their own event. In the context of the Serpentine, you can’t use the phrase “summer party”, which was pretty interesting. So I came up with the alternative name “Late Summer Party”, as the project was in September. The title of the show ended up coming together from different bureaucratic curveballs I had to deal with. The event itself was promoted as a festival within the community of people I was reaching out to and inviting, but obviously to the Serpentine, it was an Oscar Murillo performance. So there were these two very distinct contexts that I was playing with. What happened next was that, without the intention of being sensationalist or political, there was a bringing together of these two different realities and seeing how they interact. Details such as what is deemed “approved music” and what are “approved wines” became apparent. In essence, two different kinds of event took place. They began to come together and the flow of the evening took over. § 

Oscar Murillo works with Carlos/Ishikawa in London, Isabella Bortolozzi Galerie in Berlin and David Zwirner in New York/London. The Mistake Room opened in January: themistakeroom.tumblr.com/

  • Oscar Murillo