The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2022

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JUNE 2022 Issue

Oscar Murillo: Ourself behind ourself concealed

Installation view, <em>Oscar Murillo: Ourself behind ourself concealed</em>, David Zwirner, New York, April 28-June 4, 2022. Courtesy David Zwirner.
Installation view, Oscar Murillo: Ourself behind ourself concealed, David Zwirner, New York, April 28-June 4, 2022. Courtesy David Zwirner.

New York City
David Zwirner Gallery
Oscar Murillo: Ourself Behind Ourself Concealed
April 28 – June 4, 2022

Oscar Murillo’s latest paintings are big, bold, and breathtaking. They would not look out-of-place in a survey exhibition featuring significant works by Joan Mitchell, Helen Frankenthaler, Al Leslie, Harry Jackson, and Grace Hartigan. Anyone who ever considered this 36-year-old artist a zombie abstractionist should take note. He has matured into someone who should be considered an honorary second-generation Abstract Expressionist.

It’s hard to tell what you see first when you look at Murillo’s canvases: the strong colors, the distinctive patterns, the textured marks. Then again, perhaps it’s their mural-like dimensions. These gestural abstractions are super-sized. You’re dwarfed when you stand next to them. Or, as the Colombian-born, London-based artist put it during a convo with Courtney J. Martin held at the Zwirner Gallery, “The scale allows you to get lost.”

The seven canvases on view in Murillo’s latest solo show, his first in New York comprised exclusively of paintings, are mixed media works. He executed them with oil paint, oil stick, graphite, and spray paint. Each of these substances seems to occupy a separate layer, layering being another defining feature of these riveting pictures. Through the interstices of the distinctive marks, you can see graphite scribbles on the surface of these canvases. It also looks as if Murillo sprayed paint beneath the creamy oil colors, which were applied next. Lastly, he created thick marks with oil sticks. All told, the combination of tiers conveys a rich sense of depth.

Oscar Murillo, <em>manifestation</em>, 2020-2022. © Oscar Murillo. Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner
Oscar Murillo, manifestation, 2020-2022. © Oscar Murillo. Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner

As he painted each layer, Murillo used his arm and wrist variously. Applying paint with a brush involves different motions as well as bodily pressures than holding an oil stick in your hand. If you saw the impressive drawings featured in Murillo’s show at The Shed three years ago, you might notice some similarities between the small works on paper and the huge ones on canvas. The artist uses oil sticks as if they are pencils or pens. To some extent, an argument could be made that these paintings are like humongous drawings.

As for Murillo’s palette of red, blue, green, and yellow, he refers to the way he positions these pigments as “pools of color.” Interacting with passages and streaks of black and white, they’re also, to borrow a phrase, like bombs bursting in air. Sections of these paintings could not be more animated. Yet, as the black oil stick strokes and colors interact, they create patterns that allow these canvases not to seem frenetic.

Through international exhibitions and auctions, Murillo came to the attention of a wide public when he was still in his mid-twenties. As his paintings were achieving high prices, he emerged as a performative artist. For example, he created life-size figures with distinctive faces and outfits, and then filmed them riding on trains or pushed along streets in wheelchairs. In his first show at the Zwirner Gallery on West 19th Street, he even operated a candy making facility reminiscent of ones in his hometown in Colombia where he was raised until the age of ten.

Based on the beautiful paintings in his current exhibition, it appears that Murillo has managed to mature splendidly despite being in the limelight. Having multi-disciplinary interests contributed to his versatility. Nevertheless, when he found himself somewhat isolated during the Covid pandemic, he hunkered down and primarily focused on what he could achieve as a painter. It’s hard to pull off work that’s both abstract and as large as 11 ½-feet-by-15-feet. Oscar Murillo just did that in spades.


Phyllis Tuchman

Phyllis Tuchman is a critic and art historian. She is an Editor-at-Large for the Brooklyn Rail.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2022

All Issues