Kid cubist

Twelve-year-old Alexandra Nechita is fooling art patrons as the "Petite Picasso"

We were walking along Cedar Springs--my mother and I--when it happened. A few weekends back, while hitting the so-called "gallery district," we passed a crowd filtering into the Florence Art Gallery. Curious, we peered into the window before a helpful bystander filled us in: "It's that child prodigy, you know. That painter." We followed the others inside.

The lush space was filled with polished people, TV cameras, security guys, and an inordinate number of small children. The crowd surged toward a back room where a young, tanned surfer girl in shorts and T-shirt was standing in front of a giant oil painting and addressing onlookers. She shyly murmured on about a dream she once had that starred the tooth fairy. "And like, I don't really believe in it anymore but, like, I think it's important to hang on to that innocence." Certainly, the crowd was hanging on to it (all but my disbelieving mother), smiling when she smiled, laughing when she laughed, cameras clicking, tape rolling.

Alexandra Nechita has not murdered anyone or fondled the president. She hasn't cultivated a heroin habit or been spotted playing in heavy traffic. She doesn't hang out in the Viper Room or sleep with TV lesbians. So why do her paintings sell for $90,000 a pop?

'Cause she's a 12-year-old, and she paints just like Picasso. Not kinda like Picasso, but just like him, only happier. No need even to describe her work, other than that. If we hid her prepubescent, cheery status and unleashed these paintings on the public, two things would happen. A few viewers might exclaim "Quel surprise! Is this a newly discovered Cubist masterpiece?" Then, after being told it was painted only six months ago, they would deflate and feel silly. The rest would say, "Yeah, so what? So some painter's ripping off Picasso and Chagall. Show me something original."

But when these cynics hear that the askew noses and stacked eyes and toothy maws were painted by a child, they freak and pull out their checkbooks. Whoopi Goldberg, Oprah Winfrey, even the Queen of England are guilty of such misplaced enthusiasm. Never mind that for 90 grand, they could've bought a real Picasso--say a small, important drawing. They, like plenty of Dallasites, just shelled out cash for a big, vibrant, expensive knock-off by a really cute Southern California girl.

Not that Nechita copies Picasso's subject matter. Doubtless the sheltered young painter couldn't reproduce the turmoil of "Guernica" or the eroticism of "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" unless or until she grows up and experiences love and war firsthand. It's hard to make a statement when the sum total of your life experience consists of watching a food fight in the lunchroom of your junior high. And with titles like "Forever Happy" and "From My Heart to Your Heart," her works don't even pretend to mock the intense iconography of the original master.

Unlike other successful artists, the focus of Nechita's work isn't on her inspiration or temperament. It's all about her youth--that she has shown a talent for color and light, attention span, and imitation at such a young age. Who cares, really, that she was born in Romania (how exotic!) before her family migrated to a Los Angeles suburb, or that her adoring parents enrolled her in art classes at age seven, or that she unwittingly incriminates herself by admitting her penchant for Picasso and Klee? Frankly, serious art collectors won't touch her stuff, while amateurs get caught in the hype and frenzy of buying what's attracting warm and fuzzy praise from an unsophisticated media. It's the cult of celebrity at work, and her parents and agent and the galleries that participate are exploiting it mercilessly. Thank God that California has stringent child labor laws; for now, the millions she earns flow into a trust fund. Minus the agent fee, of course, and the gallery percentage, and whatever managerial stipend that allows her parents to act as full-time chaperones.

It's simple: If Nechita were 18, or 24, or 30, her stuff wouldn't fly. Any serious art student can study the ground-breaking methods of the Cubists--their approach to light and angles and deconstruction--and reproduce it. The abstracted forays of Picasso, Miro, and Braque were as much a product of their time, of the need for new ways of interpreting their rapidly changing world, as they were of pioneering a new artistic style. Picasso had plenty to say about sex and violence and love and death, and he said it in a million different ways through his paintings, which ranged from detailed realism to complete abstraction. A friend once told me, "An artist could create an entire body of work based on one week of Picasso's life."

The most remarkable thing about Nechita's opening at the Florence wasn't the crowd or the cameras; it was all those red dots--indicating the piece had sold. Despite the prices of the works--simple line drawings for $9,500, hand-pulled serigraphs for $8,500, and of course, oil paintings, which only start at $50,000--those tiny red dots (in Florence's case, actually little red hearts. Aww...) were everywhere, on probably half the works in the show.

Dallas, thy name is "duped," just like all the other secondary markets that have or will host the youngster. One art broker I spoke with later said that Nechita's paintings will not appreciate in value, that the art world considers her purely a novelty act. Nechita will grow up, and her Cubist canvases won't be so cute anymore. Kinda like when Debbie Gibson's sugar-lite songs lost their appeal as soon as "Deborah" started looking like an adult who should know better.

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