Usually, polarizing artists have either committed a crime or unraveled art-historical convention. But Oscar Murillo is handing out candy. The 28-year-old artist recently mounted his first show in New York, titled “Mercantile Novel,” with his newly minted representation, blue-chip kingmaker David Zwirner.The production, which opened April 24 and runs through June 14, entails a factory Murillo set up within the warehouse-size Chelsea gallery. He imported the very machines and factory workers of the La Colombina candy plant, where his mother used to work, and based in La Paila, Colombia, the city of his birth. As a result, 7,000 Choco Melos (chocolate-covered marshmallows) are produced there each day. “I don’t really like chocolate,” Murillo admits, “but I thought Choco Melos were interesting. When you have a large support system like David Zwirner, then why not make the most of it? That’s what I’m doing.”
Murillo first came into the public consciousness when Miami-based über-collectors Don and Mera Rubell snapped up a considerable quantity of his paintings. After the patrons gave him a five-week residency at their foundation, the demand for his canvases grew at a furious pace, causing a storm throughout the art market. When Murillo’s first painting sold at auction in May 2013, the primary market was valued at around $7,000. Most recently, Phillips saw the hammer come down at over $400,000 for his work. The bidder? None other than Leonardo DiCaprio. Murillo, along with a small group of (mostly) American male painters, has been designated a “flip artist,” with his works trading much like a stock. Consequently their aesthetic value is overlooked in favor of their ability to generate monetary value, often exchanging hands as quickly as these generally formulaic works can be made. But Murillo contests the affiliation assigned to him by critics and spectators. “I’m not just a painter,” he says.
While it’s his paintings that seem to sell (and are notably absent in his current show), Murillo’s showings are carnivalesque and immersive installations, in which audience participation is the latchkey to the art. “I’m not doing this for anybody,” the artist, who’s quickly becoming known for his indifference, says, “I don’t think; I don’t know what my work is doing.”
If nothing else, it’s creating a lot of buzz. His only other exhibition in the U.S. was the inaugural show at L.A.’s Mistake Room; other notable exhibitions include the South London Gallery and at Serpentine Gallery, a collaboration with Commes des Garçons under Hans Ulrich Obrist’s zeitgeist eye, also in London, where Murillo currently resides. (He moved there to attend the Royal College of Art, working as a janitor to put himself through school.)
So what does an artist like Murillo, who seems weary of money and eschews fame, seek to accomplish? “It’s the beginning of an interesting journey,” he offers, somewhat cryptically. Sounds like the right attitude for an artist destined to go down in the history books—but for what it is too soon to tell.