Kid cubist

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.

An assistant at the gallery later admitted that none of the Dallas buyers even mentioned "investment" once they zeroed in on a piece. Instead, they gushed over Nechita's "talent" and seemed anxious to get the work home to their living room wall. While this may come off as honest admiration--rare enough in today's investment-savvy art market--it also smacks of the buying habits of those with too much discretionary income and little direction on how to spend it. Their willingness to shell out big bucks to someone who they perceive is a promising emerging artist, again isn't the point. Their $90,000 won't just buy a Picasso drawing--it could also go toward a Stella, or a small Basquiat, or a modest Schnabel. It would buy a great limited-edition Chuck Close or Andy Warhol print. But these Nechita fans don't want to know about that; research is tiresome, the real art world is complex and opaque, and so they'll throw money at what the Today show and People magazine label "hot." I suspect these amateur collectors are the same people who rushed out to buy the new Porsche Boxster only months before, and spent 50 grand on the Persian rugs they'll replace in a few years. So for a once-expensive painting to grace their homes--only to be retired to storage by the year 2001--is no sweat off their backs. No, sir. "And who do I make the check out to, please?"

In the end, it's still paying a 12-year-old far more than she's worth. Nechita says things like, "When I paint, I feel the inspiration in my soul and fill the canvas from my heart!" and "It's not that my work is so much better than any other kids. It's that I put so much time into it, like three or four hours a day!" She's earnest, even in her blatant, trained-monkey nod to a dead artist and his retired movement--a style so distinct that it should be an aesthetic low even to ape it. She's a good kid surrounded by greedy adults. It's not her fault she's rich and famous. Not yet, at least.

Nechita may be lucky even to have a career when she hits legal age; not that any of those pulling her strings care to look to that grim future. Will she ever chuck the "Petite Picasso" label and follow her own instincts, possibly even reinvent her career by displaying personal vision or integrity? (I'm thinking of Marky Mark the cartoony rapper becoming Mark Wahlberg the serious actor, or Ron Howard the Ritchie Cunningham becoming the respected Hollywood director), or will she evaporate into embarrassed obscurity? (Vanilla Ice and Corey Haim.) There are kid artists out there who showed real vision and talent from the get-go: Ben Lee of Noise Addict, Jodie Foster, even North Texas' own little songwriter Ben Kweller of Radish, who may wear his admiration for Kurt Cobain front and center, but by the ripe old age of 16 has found a personal stamp.

Prodigy, my ass. Mozart was a prodigy. At the gallery that muggy afternoon, Nechita didn't appear to be thinking past lunchtime.

At least if she meets ruination and obscurity, she'll do it with millions of dollars to her name. That should cushion the blow.

Alexandra Nechita at the Florence Art Gallery, through June 20. (214) 754-7070.

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Christina Rees