Originally published on Temporary Art Review
This exhibition ran from March 19, 2015 - May 17, 2015 at Artpace in San Antonio, TX
Oscar Murillo’s Artpace residency exhibition A prophecy in the history of things is heavy with symbolism, the artist’s own biography, and unintended ironies. The show is sparsely installed with five works. On the left wall there is a large billboard-sized Toyota logo, complete with drop shadow. On the center wall, tucked into the back right corner, hangs a four-panel 16×20 inch photo-realistic graphite drawing of advertisements, too small for its frame fashioned of industrial shelving. Broken cement lies on the floor. On the right wall there is a massive black canvas with grommets hung like a funeral shroud reaching almost up to the ceiling. Eight coveralls or work uniforms hang from the track lighting. Blue underpainting shows sporadically under the surface of the gallery white and on the center and right walls there is a singular red chalk line at around 60 inches.
The Toyota logo is the largest work in the show. It immediately elicits reference to advertising and global capitalism but it, like all the works in the room, gives no discernible critique or comment. It has become common practice since the 1990’s for artists to travel to institutions and make work concerning facets of local culture, and indeed Murillo points out there is a Toyota factory in San Antonio, but refrains from telling us what that means to him or should mean to us. Murillo claims in the press release that there is a link to his native Colombia where Toyotas were used as agricultural tools in the 1960’s and 1970’s. The scale of the wall-painting paired with Toyota’s status as a world-wide Japanese Company attenuates any assertion of autobiography by the artist. It reads deadpan as Toyota.
The readymade coveralls (7 out of 8 are Dickies) suspend from the ceiling, perhaps suggesting ancestral spirits or household gods watching over him. The work uniforms–which assert Murillo’s continued interest in his own family’s history of physical labor–are reminiscent of Joseph Beuys’s Filzanzug (1970): the felt suit made in multiple which asserts specifics of Beuys’s mythical autobiography of being nursed with felt and fat. The recognizable Dickies icon fails to function with the same complexity of a Beuysian mythology wherein each article had specific meanings. Instead the space of contemplation is negated by the thing itself.
The modest-sized graphite drawing mounted on foam core hangs in the back right corner of the room rising slightly above the red chalk line. The non-traditional framing device paired with the meticulous drawing has a push and pull of the skilled and de-skilled, or the savvy and the outsider that implies Murillo’s practice does not fall into the traditional “frame” of the art world. The unintended irony here, however, is that there is much precedent for an artist as ethnographer type of practice especially when blended with the dated institutional critique the artist employs in the wall treatment––embodied in Murillo’s chalk line and blue underpainting which read as predetermined moves to perfunctorily “question” the understood seamlessness and invisibility of the white cube. The frame itself may be an allusion to Hans Haacke’s Painting for a Boardroom (1983). Haacke too employs a non-traditional metal frame of aluminum siding, bringing attention to the Alcos Aluminum Corporation’s inhumane treatment of their workers that led to terminal illnesses. Murillo’s visual claim not to fit is comical not only on account of his embrasure by the art world and astronomically high sale prices, but also in light of his comment on his recent gallery representation with David Zwirner. The artist made the metaphor that to solidify his representation he and the gallery “have to have sex in public.” Murillo fits this world well: employing tactics of institutional and Marxist critiques without applying them to himself or the larger system.
Finally, the black grommeted canvas hangs from a single point on the right wall. The canvas is not stretched and it is hung far above the normal height, which Murillo reiterates with the red chalk line. I cannot help but draw the comparison to Sam Gilliam’s Drape paintings from the 1960’s and 1970’s. But again Murillo inserts an industrial material, the grommets, as well as the irregular presentation to denude the high art form of paint on canvas with an allusion to a more humble material and gestural shape of a tarp.
What does any of this tell me about the world that I didn’t know already? Perhaps an unreasonable expectation for an exhibition, but Murillo claims in the press release that these works are “connected to a wider situation.” Murillo forefronts art historical references and personal biography en vogue with curators in lieu of anything of substance. The chalk line and the blue underpainting are tactics going back to Lawrence Weiner in the 1960’s cutting out a square of drywall or plaster and placing it on the floor as well as many other conceptual artists of that decade. Even Murillo’s choice of titling the works in the show “Untitled” fails to resonate because it is a tactic of a bygone era. The heavy-handed symbolism–especially in conjunction with the title A prophecy in the history of things–implies a revelation or epiphany that never comes. A prophecy in the history of thing elicits the provenance of everyday objects but I would ask the same of Murillo’s readymade uniforms; often the artist’s opaque methods occlude the labor of the actual workers who made the clothing. The artist claims that a singular culture dominates all others–the subject of the graphite drawing, itself broken into four hemispheres–seems to be too reductive of a critique that leaves no room for the interstitial, making due, and falls into the ridiculously hopeless. This regurgitation of 20th century avant-garde tactics (the readymade, the commodity-sign of Andy Warhol, or Beuys’s messianic prole) is lazy, pastiche, non-committal, ostensibly politically motivated when in actuality saying and doing nothing but pandering to what Thierry de Duve calls the “necrophilic art market.” This vacuous and unmoving practice is not just embodied in Murillo but is a greater art star problem where a very small group of artists move from institution to institution while cashing in on awards and residencies. Regarding this flaccid and brief oeuvre one might say forget about artist as ethnographer, what about artist as venture capitalist?