Last November, the country music performer Ryan Edward Upchurch uploaded an Instagram video of himself shooting several rounds of bullets from an assault rifle into Jacob Aaron LeVeille’s paintings before tagging one of the canvases with an insult directed toward the artist. The self-described “hick-hop” rapper then auctioned off the damaged artworks over social media.
A lawsuit filed by the artist with Florida federal court on Monday alleges that Upchurch violated the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990 (VARA) when he “intentionally mutilated” the two paintings (one depicting the musician and another representing Johnny Cash) and “defamed” LeVeille by posting the video for the Redneck Nation country rapper’s 1.4 million Instagram followers — more than 155,000 of which have viewed the video since it was posted on November 9, 2018.
LeVeille is a young painter currently living in Jacksonville, Florida. According to the lawsuit, he’s known for “unique paintings of country musicians,” which have garnered “growing acclaim” from the art and country music scenes. His expressive work is also featured in the Coal Miner’s Daughter Museum at Loretta Lynn’s Ranch in Tennessee.
Upchurch began his career on YouTube, where he became popular for his parodies of stereotypes of young white men in the Deep South. He first gained a reputation as a comedian before transitioning into his own genre that combines humor, rap, and rock. Released in 2014, his first single “Raise Hell and Eat Cornbread” led to the 2015 EP Cheatham County, which reached the top 30 on Billboard’s rap and country album charts. He remains immensely popular on social media sites like YouTube, where his music videos for “Hillbilly” has reached over 28.3 million views.
According to the suit, the pair first met at one of the country rapper’s concerts in 2016. Five months later, Upchurch acquired a portrait by the artist and commissioned two more works without issue. A dispute developed between the artist and musician over payment for a later 2018 work, which culminated with the rapper shooting two of LeVeille’s paintings on social media. By early 2019, Upchurch auctioned off the two damaged paintings to fans on his Facebook group, Cheatham County After Dark.
On Tuesday, August 6 of this year, a summons was issued for Upchurch by the federal court.
“My client hopes that he will have some vindication for the destruction of his works,” Joel Rothman, the attorney representing LeVeille, told Hyperallergic. “He’s a young artist who has tremendous talent.”
It’s unusual that cases are filed under VARA, which gives artists limited rights over paintings they no longer own. Rothman says that he chose it because of the specific circumstances surrounding the Upchurch lawsuit. (The most notable example of a successful VARA argument comes from Queens. In 2018, a federal judge ordered Jerry Wolkoff to pay $6.7 million to 21 artists under VARA after the real estate developer whitewashed the 5Pointz graffiti complex without notifying them.) The attorney indicated that he and his client may add infringement claims in the future. Currently, the plaintiff is seeking the return of his paintings, plus damage and attorneys’ fees from Upchurch.
“It isn’t the typical situation that someone would patronize an artist and subsequently destroy and disfigure their work,” Rothman added.
Upchurch and his representation were not immediately available for comment.