Turner Prize finalist Oscar Murillo on new paintings, Aspen-shot video and Aspen Art Museum solo exhibition


What: Oscar Murillo’s ‘Social Altitude’

Where: Aspen Art Museum

When: Nov. 23-May 19; opening reception Friday, Nov. 22, 5:30 p.m.

How much: Free

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Also opening Friday evening at the Museum is New York-based artist Seth Price’s “No Technique.” The show, following a recent high-profile exhibition at MoMa PS1, includes recent work along with Price’s signature “Knot Paintings” made between 2009 and 2012 and created by encasing objects sculptures in a “vacuum forming” process.

As Price explained in a Q-and-A with former museum director Heidi Zuckerman at the Petzel Gallery in New York last month: “Vacuum forming is an industrial process that dates back to the period after World War Two. You take a sheet of plastic, heat it until it gets soft, and suck it down around an object to form an impression. It’s basically a printmaking technique. People use the process to make packaging – think of toothbrushes, chocolate boxes, or those perfectly shaped plastic beds for bottles of cologne.”

Price’s show runs through March 1.

Walking into a new Oscar Murillo solo exhibition, like the one opening at the Aspen Art Museum on Friday, is freighted with hype.

When Murillo was shortlisted for this year’s Turner Prize, the citation noted how the Colombia-born artist “pushes the boundaries of materials.” An art star of the past decade, the 33-year-old’s style is often compared to Jean-Michel Basquiat’s. His work is competitively bidded up at auction and he is represented by the contemporary art kingmaker David Zwirner.

But all that noise fades away once you’re confronted with his work in the museum’s largest gallery. Titled “Social Altitude,” the multidisciplinary show includes, but transcends, the forms of painting, drawing, sculpture and video.

A series of five “Frequencies” paintings on one wall represent a yearslong cultural exchange between young people around the world.

The pieces trace back to a collaboration Murillo has undertaken with students on six continents over the past seven years. From his native Colombia to Argentina, Kenya, Japan and New York, Murillo has placed canvases on school desks of preteens and high school kids and invited the students to draw and write freely on them. He’s amassed an archive of some 40,000 canvases.

For the “Frequencies” series, he’s stitched some of them together to form larger canvases, then intervened with his own work on top of them — erratic, larger-than-life scribbles in blues, reds, blacks and, for the first time in new works included here, greens. He makes those marks with a self-made oversized stylus — a broom handle, sometimes sharpened and sometimes dulled like a school kid’s pencil. His marks serve as erasures and redactions that block out the students’ multi-lingual doodles and graffiti-like messages, but also highlight their work that’s left visible.

“The project started when I was thinking about drawing, thinking about collaboration and social practice in relation to the tension between freedom and dogma,” Murillo said this week in the gallery, as he and the museum team finalized installation. “Children, I believe, still have that tug-of-war between challenging the system and going through a system that, at the end, will indoctrinate them into our society. But they’re not quite part of the system yet.”

As with so much of Murillo’s acclaimed work, the pieces are concerned with globalization, political power and geography and are built on complex ideas like his concept of “social cataracts,” Murillo’s term for the ways contemporary society slowly clouds people’s perception of reality. But he also wants the paintings to speak as art objects. They are beautiful and he wants them to be.

“It’s not just a concept and an idea,” he said, “but also a potentially successful aesthetic painting. I leave that up to the judgment of the public.”

His process of working with his canvases on the floor and using the oversized stylus has birthed Murillo’s visual signature of action-charged strokes. He talks about it as an unconscious process of “mark-making as the download of physical energy onto a plain.” The physicality of the process is evident.

“To me, they represent the body if you get close to them,” he said.

He discusses his emotionally urgent work, at times, in terms of therapy and diary entries.

“It’s not about making a painting, it’s about releasing energy,” he explained. “So not every attempt is successful as a painting.”

Only when the process is done does he assess whether the work is at all successful as art.

“Often it’s not,” he explained, judging his success rate is about 20%.

When they don’t work, he recycles the canvases and uses the initial work as the base layer for another attempt or another series, like his “Manifestations,” also included in the Aspen show.

In the largest scale of these in “Social Altitude” — overwhelming, rising a story high and running as long as a station wagon — you can spot an obscured letter or two from his big stylus, covered up by dramatic and chunky thick lines of carbon black.

The Aspen exhibition in the museum’s largest gallery includes works from four distinct but interconnected series, bisected by a painted wall that runs nearly to the gallery’s high ceiling that’s adorned with flag-like fabric pieces. He’s installed these works in various forms around the world, including stops at the Venice Biennale, in a South Korean forest and in Azerbaijan. Spend some time with these draped works and you’ll find that the sculpture-like forms of the flags are reflected in the paintings on the gallery walls and directly brought to life in a new video work.

Murillo made the video, titled “Industrial Park,” this summer in the Aspen backcountry. In it, the artist swims in a pond and crawls under one of the flag works on the shore, then stands and shuffles — shrouded in the drapery — into the woods like a sort of formless creature emerging from the water. Over the sounds of the water and Murillo’s rustlings, a narrator reads from the Brazilian novelist Patricia Galvao’s “Industrial Park.”

The secret voice of the show, however, may be in a series of small, intimate drawings hanging in a gallery alcove. Those pieces include more evidence of Murillo’s automatic drawing, including erratic scribbles and scrawled, repeated letters and words. In some installations, Murillo has complemented these drawings with performances where he reads from the drawings, giving urgent life to them as he repeats words from the drawings like “1968,” “Strike,” “A,” “Proletariat,” “Rockefeller,” “Force,” “Territory,” “Power.”

“The exercise is to take the drawings away from intimacy and to give it a kind of intensity within the context of the show,” he explained of the performances after sharing a video of one on his phone. “I don’t think I’ll do that here, because the paintings are already these loud voices.”

The exhibition, in other words, is intense enough as is.