Oscar Murillo, the 28-year-old market darling who has already sold pieces of his art for nearly a half-million dollars, is still making student work. It looks like a deft combination of Julian Schnabel, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Joe Bradley, whom I'm told he worked for and whose ideas he appears to have hugely appropriated. He’s not talentless: While I don't much care for Murillo's almost-monochrome drop-cloth abstraction or his funky formal paintings with words in them, he has a nice sense of warm colors, a handsome touch, and full-blown ambition. Otherwise, though, his work looks exactly like a lot of abstraction that is snapped up by speculator-collectors lately for ever-rising prices.
Notwithstanding his massive market success, Murillo is posing a problem for art-world types. Last week in Berlin, I visited a huge building housing an enormous collection of contemporary art. Afterwards, I was taken to the collector's nearby home to say hello. The first thing I saw in the main room, granted pride-of-place front-and-center, was one of Murillo’s abstract paintings. I wasn't even sure at first if it was his. Then the collector appeared. I looked at her and then at the painting; she looked at me and then at the painting. Neither of us spoke. We both blinked at one another for a moment. Then, out of nowhere, in a somewhat apologetic tone, she said, "We're still not sure what to think about this."
It only complicates things more that few have seen much of his work outside art fairs and sporadic appearances in group shows. That's how out-of-whack things have become. Reputations are made before the work is even known. Money beats criticism to the punch. That's why, when David Zwirner announced in 2013 that it would be representing and showing this overnight sensation, I was thrilled, if skeptical about Zwirner’s rush to capitalize. I’d finally get to judge for myself in depth what I thought of this art star.
Well, whether he’s acting strategically, glibly, or fearfully, Murillo has chosen not to exhibit any paintings in his first New York solo show. Instead, we’ve got a ridiculously derivative, sadly vapid large-scale theatrical installation. It’s called A Mercantile Novel, and it’s a working rendition of a Colombian candy factory. It's ordinary mega-gallery spectacle. It gets people in the door; business will be done in the back room. The press release reports the factory will be "staffed by experienced candy-making employees going about their daily work as usual." They will be making chocolate-covered marshmallows known as Chocmelos. We're told that this installation deals with immigration, globalism, migration, sub-localities, displacement, communities, and socioeconomic conditions in the United States, Colombia, and beyond.
What you see is just a super-clean very quiet nicely-run production line. It doesn't matter that it's been set up at enormous expense by a superwealthy organization that can't possibly be paying the workers what the artists in its gallery earn, or even, probably, what the gallery staff make. It's a nightmare of self-congratulatory hubris.
The afternoon before it opened, I met Murillo, who was putting the finishing touches on things. Sweet guy. Smart. We didn't talk long but he said he'd be happy to answer any questions. I came back a half-hour later to ask one thing. Why did he choose not to show paintings for his New York solo debut? After a few fumbling responses, he said that it would have been “redundant." I asked him to define what he meant by that. He said something to the effect of "This is where my practice is now." Wherever his practice is, this factory is another banal gesture toward enormously profitable globalism. The gallery touts that "Over the course of the exhibition, tens of thousands of candies will be produced and given away for free,” and that "gallery visitors and volunteers are invited to take candy and share it throughout the city’s five boroughs, whether on foot, by bike, by taxi, by subway, by bus, etc., thus reflecting all modes of typical transportation throughout New York City and the diversity of its communities." Pretend activism at its most deluded.
So what to review? I'm not a chocoholic, and I don't really like marshmallows. With nothing much to say about how tepid the factory is as an artistic gesture or how it might be different from similar set ups by Paul McCarthy, Dieter Roth, and Santiago Sierra, and with no paintings or sculpture on hand, I brought Murillo's candy to our crack staff at Grub Street to let them have a taste and tell me what is being made inside this bad installation. Adam Platt, our chief restaurant critic, wrote simply, "They're better than a Mallomar." Alan Sytsma, Grub Street’s editor, clarified: "Once you get past the fancy foil package, you find run-of-the-mill, mass-market chocolate-covered marshmallows. The chocolate manages to be both waxy and brittle, like the wax lips that always lingered in your Halloween bag until you ate all the good candy and became truly desperate. The marshmallow filling has a nice fluffy-gooey texture, but it's blandly sweet and in need of some vanilla flavor. As for Platt saying that these are better than a Mallomar, I'm not so sure. At least Mallomars have cookies inside the chocolate. As art, I'm sure this project offers commentary and insight that escapes me. As candy, I'd rather find something that makes a bolder statement." Funny — “I’d rather find something that makes a bolder statement" is exactly what I was thinking about the art, too.
A Mercantile Novel is at David Zwirner through June 14.