Oscar Murillo was midway through his final year at London's Royal College of Art when the feeding frenzy began. It was December 2011, and the Colombian-born artist, then 25 and cleaning office buildings to support his wife and their newborn daughter, struck a deal with the Los Angeles gallerist Francois Ghebaly, whom he'd met through a mutual friend, to bring 15 of his paintings to Miami's NADA art fair. Ghebaly sold them all for between $2,500 and $8,500 each, but in hindsight, the gallerist says, "I didn't keep enough of them for myself." By last summer, Murillo's rough-hewn canvases—which he paints with a broomstick on the floor of his East London studio, where he lets them pick up dirt and dust—were commanding as much as $400,000 apiece from collectors like the New York Giants co-owner Steven Tisch.
"The auction market is its own animal. It's completely ridiculous," says Murillo, sounding simultaneously dumbfounded and indifferent. "It's somehow part of the mechanics of being an artist, yet totally irrelevant. I'm not going to turn down projects just because my paintings cost more. I have a very fluid practice, and that is not going to be jeopardized by what happens in the market." Murillo has already defied stereotype, having emigrated with his family at the age of 10 to London from the town of La Paila, Colombia, where his parents worked in a factory owned by Colombina, one of Latin America's largest candy manufacturers. And yet, if his first bad reviews, which appeared late last year, seem more malicious than most, it may be a case of an artist being burned by inflated expectations—and prices. "I'm not saying money always corrupts," says the art adviser Allan Schwartzman, "but I do think it confuses [things] tremendously."
Left: Murillo's mother, Virgelina, in the Colombina factory in La Paila, Colombia, 1988. Right: Murillo-designed candy packaging, part of his new solo exhibition, "A Mercantile Novel"—a chocolate-factory installation at New York City's David Zwirner gallery.
The buzz around Murillo has less to do with his most saleable commodity, paintings, than with the charismatic performative acts that made him the hottest young artist in London and attracted the attention of the top gallerist and kingmaker David Zwirner, with whom Murillo signed in September. On April 24, Murillo unveils his much-anticipated solo show "A Mercantile Novel" at the gallerist's West 19th Street location in New York City, converting the Chelsea space into a fully operational candy factory. He's modeled it on the one in La Paila, importing everything from actual workplace signage to a real production line. He plans to fly in 13 Colombina workers, who will oversee the manufacture of thousands of chocolate-covered marshmallows—one of the company's signature candies—which will be distributed free throughout the city. "The contents of the factory are secondary," Murillo says. "What I'm really interested in is the journey, with social mobility being at the heart of the thing. The workers from La Paila have never been to New York before—I want to see how they respond socially. Then there's the semi-interaction with the art audience. That's a friction I'm also interested in. To me, this is the most profound reflection of what my life has been."
Murillo's 2013 solo exhibition at South London Gallery, "if I was to draw a line, this journey started approximately 400km north of the equator."
Even at 28, Murillo's journey has provided him with plenty of rich material. In September 2012, he accepted a commission from the influential curator Hans Ulrich Obrist to put on an event in the temporary summer pavilion of London's Serpentine Gallery. He called it "The Cleaners' Late Summer Party With Comme des Garçons," inviting a mix of art-world habitués and members of London's Latin-American community—many of them office cleaners—to compete in dance-offs and raffles. (Commes des Garçons had given Murillo a $12,000 credit, which he used to buy prizes: T-shirts with the clothier's iconic heart logo.) "The art world expected a performance; his friends and family came expecting a party," says Obrist, the Serpentine's codirector. "Somehow, all these different social codes blurred. Oscar choreographed the entire evening."
With his first major U.K. solo exhibition last fall, titled "if I was to draw a line, this journey started approximately 400km north of the equator," Murillo transferred the entire contents of his Dalston studio (piles of canvases, pulped ballpoint drawings) to South London Gallery and sold screen-printed, artist-signed lottery tickets for £2,500 a pop (proceeds went to the gallery). "Oscar's an incredible operator in a room full of people," Ghebaly says. "With the tickets, he made all these wealthy collectors feel like they'd won the lottery by buying his work. He's a very smart guy. He always keeps his options open. One thing I admire about Oscar is no one can control him."
Least of all speculators, who seem to love nothing more than an artist who doesn't give a damn about being collectible. "As soon as a thing is worth something, it's like, 'Oh, now we need to take care of it,'" Murillo says. "Preservation, conservation . . . I'm interested in making work that doesn't need that."
Oscar Murillo, Four, 2013.