Market phenom Oscar Murillo aims to switch things up at his New York debut: he's giving the art away.
The artist's canvases are in high demand. A Murillo abstraction with squiggles in blue and red sold for $401,000—more than 10 times its high estimate—at a fall auction. No paintings appear in his first show with David Zwirner. Instead, the Colombian-born artist has turned the rear half of a 4,000-square-foot space into a candy factory.
Working with the food manufacturer Colombina, founded in 1928 in the artist's hometown of La Paila (population 4,687), the London-based artist is offering free packages of the chocolate-covered marshmallow candy called the Chocmela. They come wrapped in silver foil emblazoned with the yellow smiley face familiar from plastic shopping bags and the words "¡have a nice day!" One of Colombina's trademark products, the Chocmelos will be offered free during the run of the show, titled "A Mercantile Novel" (today through June 14).
Giving the candy away is surely an intentionally ironic gesture for an artist who has swiftly become a collectors' darling. Despite his market prowess, Murillo, just two years out of London's Royal College of Art, has had mixed critical reception. "Think Cy Twombly on a very bad day," wrote David Pagel in the Los Angeles Times earlier this year. For his part, James Cahill wrote in A.i.A. that "Murillo's art is not undeserving of the adulatory responses."
At a press preview at Zwirner Wednesday morning, Murillo, 28, said that "The project is more than a factory. The idea is to bring about a conversation about the people I grew up with and my family, going back a hundred years."
As he spoke, 13 workers, wearing white jumpsuits and safety goggles, emerged from the rear of the gallery.
"I don't want the show to be a zoo," Murillo said, explaining that the production area will be closed to the public while the chocolates are made. The public will be allowed to enter only during breaks, between about one and three p.m.
During the rest of the day, visitors will see monitors showing videos shot by the visiting factory workers during excursions through New York with the artist, as well as a live feed from the assembly line. The rear section of the gallery, where the machinery is housed, is blocked off by a ceiling-high wall of shelving holding palettes of boxes of the candies. Also in the front room are foil bags of candies, free for the taking.
Three generations of Murillo's family, including his mother, have worked for the company in various capacities. Childhood friends of the artist are employed by Colombina today, and are among the workers in New York.
The show extends a collaborative, social aspect of Murillo's practice; the artist has organized parties at art venues, including birthday celebrations for friends and family. The artist moved from Colombia to London with his family when he was a child. Displacement and cultural clash are among his recurring themes.
"I never imagined a factory becoming art," Colombina CEO Cesar Caicedo told A.i.A. "This kind of work can be very boring and monotonous." He is the third generation of his family to run the company.
"For us, it's still a factory," general manager Carlos Pabon told A.i.A. "We have the same rules. They wash their hands the same. They dress the same." The factory in La Paila—one of the company's seven facilities, Pabon said, producing ice creams, preserves, cookies and other foodstuffs—employs about 2,300 people.