Portfolio Review: The Art of Houston’s Fugitive Picasso Vandal Uriel Landeros

We recently learned the identity of the man who was caught on camera stenciling Picasso‘s “Woman in a Red Armchair” as it hung on a gallery wall at Houston’s De Menil Collection earlier this month. He’s 22-year-old painter Uriel Landeros, and he’s currently on the run from Johnny Law. But, as noted Picasso vandal Tony Shafrazi has taught us, one day Landeros might be a powerful dealer and/or a sought-after artist, so we shouldn’t dismiss his work outright; at least not before looking over his Facebook photos of his paintings.

This vibrant oil painting, by far Landeros’s most accomplished to date, not only features the same Picasso-inspired image of a bull and bullfighter that he stenciled onto the de Menil canvas, but juxtaposes this primal, ritual duel with symbols of humanity’s fundamental split between male and female traits. At the center a muscly-armed, coded-masculine figure flexes in a typically patriarchal assertion of physical dominance, while a series of womb-like swirls in the lower-right-hand corner suggests that this all-seeing eye-god may also be a kind of hermaphroditic fertility deity.

The circular, blue, target-like forms spreading from the center of the canvas to the left are clearly allusions to the malevolent evil eye portrayed in the art of ancient Mediterranean cultures, while the sun-like sphere at the top of the composition references Kinich Ahau, the Mayan sun god. This web of contemporary, pre-modern, and ancient allusions epitomizes the postmodern quilting that characterizes Landeros’s practice, albeit usually in less elaborate terms.

In this piece a central figure, apparently some kind of pagan deity with a vaguely crustacean face — a possible allusion to the early-20th century sci-fi creature Cthulhu — commands two deer-like creatures, which may in turn be a reference to one of the numerous pre-Christian narratives that were borrowed from to create the figures of Santa Claus and his reindeer.

At either side of the deer are two smaller hybrid figures with bodies resembling the cartoon-influenced drawings of Keith Haring, while their bird heads invoke the god systems of the ancient Egyptians. Both of these bird-men appear to be shouting at small, indifferent owls that, being merely owls, don’t understand their cousin creatures’ presumably spoken commands. The surrounding swirls of reds, blues, and greens — and a patch of lily pads floating on scorched waters — are likely intended as an environmentalist commentary on global warming.

In this smaller canvas Landeros incorporates an impressive range of symbols with a relative economy of means. On the right side of the composition sperm cells rush towards the circular, swirling egg in the bottom-right-hand corner, symbols of life, but also Freud‘s death drive, and the Sartrean existential crisis induced by self-awareness — or what Lacan dubbed the “mirror stage.”

At the center of the composition a large sun expresses hope for the future — possibly one in which the world runs on solar energy — while a floating eye contained within an equilateral triangle invokes the shadowy forces of the Illuminati. Landeros is articulating the impossibility of omniscience, the death of god, and the inescapable end of the universe.

This flower painting is a reference to Georgia O’Keeffe, while the swirling gray backdrop alludes to the rolling clouds of Vincent van Gogh‘s “The Starry Night.” The ambiguous flower type conjures a conflicting bouquet of interpretations: its bright red would evoke romance and passion if it were a rose, but its glowing yellow center suggests a different reading; red is also a color of remembrance, while the bright middle suggests sunrise, rebirth, and rejuvenation. Red and yellow are also colors associated with fire and heat, of course, and their emergence here from a green stem could be seen as Landeros’s way of tapping into a culture-wide anxiety of apocalypse — itself merely a collective externalization of our individual fear of death — or the plight of agricultural workers in the drought-ridden Southwest.

Keep painting, Uriel, wherever you are. You’ll get your solo show at Shafrazi Gallery someday!

— Benjamin Sutton

(All images courtesy the artist, via Facebook)