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Texas artist due in court for defacing Picasso painting

January 10, 2013|By Molly Hennessy-Fiske

HOUSTON -- A Texas artist who fled to Mexico after he was caught on tape defacing a Picasso painting at a Houston museum is expected to appear before a judge after surrendering at the border this week.

Uriel Landeros is expected to face two felony charges of criminal mischief and felony graffiti. If convicted, he faces up to 10 years in prison.

Landeros, 22, a University of Houston student originally from South Texas, fled last summer after he was caught on a cellphone video by a fellow museum patron spray-painting a stencil of a bullfighter killing a bull and the word "conquista" -- Spanish for "conquered" -- on Picasso's "Woman in a Red Armchair" at Houston’s Menil Collection on June 13.

Landeros crossed back into the U.S. on Tuesday via a border bridge in the city of McAllen and surrendered to a U.S. marshal, according to Sara Marie Kinney, a spokeswoman for the Harris County district attorney's office. His case was still being processed Thursday, and he wasn't expected in Harris County court until next week, according to his attorney, Emily Detoto.

Detoto said she planned to waive extradition, speeding Landeros' return to Houston. Once he's back, Detoto said she plans to seek his release on bond, because he no longer poses a flight risk.

“He turned himself in. How clandestine of a fugitive was he if he was giving news interviews and posting on Facebook?” she said.

It’s not clear how Landeros plans to respond to the charges, especially because he left a trail of evidence on social media, including incriminating images and a video statement posted on YouTube in August.

"I did this to turn heads, to raise awareness to the world," he said in the video, appearing shirtless and in sunglasses in front of a white backdrop. "My intention was never to destroy Pablo's painting, or to insult the Menil."

His attorney said Landeros made many of the statements before his family hired her.

“Had he known he had a lawyer, I would have discouraged him from speaking to the media. He’s a young kid and I don’t think he realized anything he said could be used against him,” she told the Los Angeles Times. “It doesn’t make the case impossible -- it just makes it more difficult.”

The museum's director, Josef Helfenstein, released a statement to The Times on Thursday condemning the graffiti.

"An act of vandalism against one museum is an attack on all museums and violates the trust that we hold with the public," he said. "We are pleased that the legal authorities are able to move forward in prosecuting this serious crime."

The 1929 masterpiece, oil on canvas, has since been restored at a conservation lab on site and will be displayed again soon, according to Vance Muse, a spokesman for the Menil, who called the painting priceless.

"It is in very good shape -- the prognosis is excellent," Muse told The Times.

Landeros posted photos of the defaced Picasso on his Facebook page, “I have Picasso's soul in my hand,” tweeted the graffiti phrase “la bestia se conquista” and “The revolutionary artist does not create art that can easily become a commodity; his [sic] transgresses the boundaries of political mediocrity.”

“My intention is to give a voice to all those who go unheard of, all those people who get pushed around by their goverment [sic], all those people of the OCCUPY MOVEMENT who protest the streets and the goverment ignores,” Landeros wrote on Facebook. “REMEMBER, when the people fear their goverment that is tyranny, when the goverment fears the people that is freedom. We are legion, We do not forgive, We do not forget, expect us.”

Some commenters on YouTube disagreed.

"You defaced a wonderful piece of art. You have stolen from everyone in Houston," one wrote. "People like you are the reason we can only enjoy art behind velvet ropes and glass cases."

"Destruction of beauty is never the way," added another.

But Landeros also has scored support from some in Houston’s art scene. Cuento James Art Gallery announced they plan to host the first gallery show of “Infamous artist Uriel Landeros, who tagged the Picasso painting at the Menil.”

“If he does get time, I'm going to have a prison art show for him,” the gallery, owned by artist James Perez, posted on Facebook. “This is what art is about.”

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