Oscar Murillo: Abstraction, Contradiction and Commercial Disposition

A portrait of the artist who provides shelter to the new generations of Afro-descendent artists in Colombia and Latin America through his critical artistic work.

In over ten years of flying over international waters, Oscar Murillo has constituted an itinerancy sophisticating the trade turned into a brand-making method, with the many meanings that his bilingual vocabulary offers this expression. The curator Adrienne Edwards opened the door for Oscar Murillo, first at Performa then with Blackness in Abstraction, smearing it with pictorial formalisms and neo-concrete physicalities, in line with the achievements and techniques of artists like Adam Pendleton, who wrote the Black Dada manifesto, inspired by a poem by Amiri Baraka. Finding the sewing machine alongside the fabrics—like umbrellas—on those rickety, rusty beds that the artist offers a morgue tables is not fortuitous.

According to Adam Pendleton, abstraction is a force wherever and whenever the subject is misrecognized as an object. He suggests that this misrecognition has occurred—to use the poet Fred Moten’s language—by the resistance of these subjects to their utilization as objects. Oscar Murillo’s trajectory is no anomaly; it has been precisely the (re)course of the artist to process said existential denial.

“Abstraction is also flight… it is freedom from the spacio-temporal constraints of the moment,” the artist Adrian Piper tells us, recalling that “it is precisely by practicing abstraction, through poetry, painting or whatever, that the subject confirms itself as other-than-object.” Oscar Murillo’s work provides shelter to the new generations of Afro-descendant artists who are now imagining the futures contained in all our pasts.

His restorative way of abstracting the void of representation, from the black at the base of the ivory pigment, was transliterated into a grammar from beyond the grave by curator Okwui Enzwor in 2015 at the Venice Biennale. On the façade of the central pavilion, twenty enormous canvases by Oscar Murillo hung like sepulchral curtains crowned with a scream paraphrased in neon by the artist Glenn Ligon. The group invoked, by philosophical measure, the blues tune to which philosopher Cornell West vocalizes the anthem of life in our time of imperial decay.

In Colombia the corporate press has been complacent and has sealed the image of his body of work with all the tools of the country’s-branding. Exquisite Corpse. Meanwhile, most critics, for instance customs officials, inspect Oscar Murillo based on biometric parameters. In addition to being unable to stop measuring him by his physical appearance, the reports that these desk officers send to headquarters have focused on monitoring financial ties and activities, undermining the artist’s humanity and heritage. Oscar Murillo, who at an early age migrated with his family from La Paila, Valle del Cauca, to the United Kingdom, has stated that he does not feel like a Colombian artist. This despite having a Colombian passport and flushing his British passport down an airplane toilet hours before landing in Australia, being denied entry to the Biennale of Sydney then being deported to his homeland.

Colombia is a country of imagined borders where cultural policy—as a state project of safe citizen inclusion—continues to be divided between curators and their collections, and liberal banks, companies and fairs. Oscar Murillo’s diasporic movement occupies and claims spaces for the arts in Colombia beyond the nationalist paradigm.

An intentionally futile commercial disposition in Oscar Murillo’s installations reveals, not only the contradictory fetichism of his commodity art, but also the artist’s willingness to crack this problem and use it as fuel to accelerate his system of accumulation, distribution and consumption. In a small pencil drawing, black matter releases the parts of a machine in what looks like a textile factory. Oscar Murillo, the sketch artist, seems to suggest, through mechanical analogy, the imbalance in the assembly line of his famous individual exhibition Una novela mercantil (A Mercantile Novel).

Oscar Murillo, Conditions Yet Not Known, is on display at the Museum of Art at the National University of Colombia, Bogota, through May 31, 2022.

Nicolás Vizcaíno Sánchez (1991-) artist-etc. Occasionally writes from the mountains of Colombia.

Translation from Spanish by Sara Hanaburgh