“Who will be this century’s Picasso?” The question has been plaguing artists and art historians for months now. In his new solo show of six large paintings, Sean Landers provides the long-awaited answer: “Ladies and gentlemen, it is I. I am who you are looking for.” It’s a gutsy move, one that emits a pungent whiff of midcareer desperation tempered by ingratiating irony, yet it’s remarkably close in spirit to the inflated aspirations of the master himself. By the time he reached his midtwenties, Picasso was ready to claim pride of place alongside such luminaries as Velázquez, Ingres, and Poussin. Like Landers, Picasso used pastiche to channel the genius of past generations, but he also indulged in a somewhat freakier form of channeling: Donning a top hat, he would gaze at his reflection in the mirror and quietly murmur, “Bonjour, Monsieur Ingres.”
Landers, who aspires to be “the smartest dumb guy you ever met,” has been parading his naked ambition for over a decade, covering his canvases with rivers of words in an ongoing stream-of-consciousness monologue that fluctuates between smug narcissism and abject self-doubt. The results, as in the piped-in soundtrack that accompanies this show, are exasperating, endearing, and often hilarious.
Here, Landers recites a loony letter to Picasso over the swelling strains of Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” mimicking the bombastic cadences of a bad commencement address. The paintings are sly and facile, filled with loopy black outlines and bright cartoon colors. In the mock-epic War and Peace—a teeming menagerie of bulls, horses, cats, monkeys, and roosters—we get Guernica without the gore. In another work, five Picasso-esque women languish in a large studio amid odd pieces of finial-topped furniture that subliminally spell out the painting’s title, Genius.
While Landers’s grandiose ambitions are at best laughable and at worst annoying, he succeeds in shining a dazzling spotlight on the poignant drama of his own failure. At least he’s not wearing a top hat. Bonjour, Monsieur Picasso.