Something has been pestering me about the news coverage of Uriel Landeros, the alleged “artist” who last year defaced Picasso’s Woman in a Red Armchair at The Menil Collection. I’d forgotten about him until last week, when Whitney Radley covered his guilty plea for Culturemap. She wrote an excellent brief story, probably what I would have written if I’d received the same assignment. If you haven’t been following the case, I urge you to explore the links in her column for a comprehensive view.
But why did I place quotation marks around “artist” in the above paragraph? Because until Landeros spray-painted the Picasso in Houston, few people had ever heard of him. His biography, at this point, requires quotation marks around most of the nouns. While he claims to have vandalized the Picasso painting “to all the people out there who have suffered for any injustice of every kind,” as Radley reported, in my opinion his greater message is simple aggression. Landeros was clumsy with the disguise.
It seems I’ve read the script for this sort of career before, or at least I’ve seen variants on the same theme. To the best of my knowledge, however, nobody writing about the case has speculated on Landeros as a performance artist. In this regard, he could be quite brilliant, if not headed for acclaim. From the moment he walked into the Menil and an innocent bystander just happened to have a mobile phone ready to film him defacing the Picasso (did anybody really fall for that?), the fledgling “artist” had already positioned himself within performance rather than painting.
Act Two: for months he hides out in northern Mexico, a territory perceived as one of the most dangerous on the continent. That’s where the drug wars are being played out! Oh, what he must have suffered there! White liberals surely trembled holding their newspapers, speculating on the squalor, and then drowning their anxieties in another soy latte. The art world always loves a good renegade.
He followed that up by turning himself in to authorities in McAllen, a shady Texas border town. Now Landeros goes to prison in Texas, where he can gather more “material” about injustice. He is supposed to serve two years, but according to several articles he will likely be paroled before finishing the sentence.
This is not unlike celebrities who initiate public drug and/or booze binges so that later they can appear on Celebrity Rehab and blubber in front of Dr. Drew, thereby invigorating a stagnant career. Except that Landeros was never on top in the first place. He hadn’t yet had an artistic career. He had nowhere to fall from. The defacement is the beginning of his artistic career.
After prison, he aspires to return to the University of Houston to complete his bachelor’s degree. “He plans to continue with his art career. We’re hopeful that he’ll be able to turn a positive out of this experience,” his attorney said in an article published by Huffington Post. I can already imagine his senior thesis project. Oh, the injustice.