BEAUTY IN A BAD NEIGHBOURHOOD

In LA, Alexandra Nichita gets compared to Picasso. Her paintings cost $100,000 each, and there's a waiting list. She is only 10 years old
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The Independent Culture
HIGHWAY 10 is just one of many asphalt ribbons that are tied tight around Los Angeles. This is the other side of town from Beverly Hills and 10 has exits to places like Mendicino, which appear frequently in LAPD homicide reports.

One of these tough suburbs is Norwalk, exit 64. At the bottom of the off-ramp, gangs have sprayed their tags on road signs and shop-fronts. The streets are dark with an air of hostility, but the property is cheap. That's why Niki and Vionca Nichita bought a house here 10 years ago, just after they fled from Romania with a new-born baby girl. To them, the street gangs were a mild irritation compared to the brutality of the Romanian secret police.

At the end of their street, cars cruise past and hip-hop blares from open windows, but in the Nichita house Vivaldi and Mozart fill the six small rooms, at least until the children go to bed. Niki and Vionca are now trying to sell their modest bungalow. They may move to Santa Monica, Holly-wood's fashionable ocean-front neighbour. They haven't won the lottery; instead their daughter, now 10, has just sold a painting for $100,000.

"Her sales are about to pass 200," says Niki, an energetic man who manages a small factory. He smiles constantly, and carries a video camera to record the exploits of his phenomenal daughter. "At the last count, that's about $2.5m-worth of paintings," he says, proud as punch.

Alexandra Nichita is a child prodigy. That's rare enough, but Alexandra is also an abstract painter. "I don't think there has ever been a young artist with such a high level of technical accomplishment," says Ben Valenty, who owns a gallery where Alexandra has shown her work. "She paints with startling complexity. Her work is broadly Cubist but also has affinities with Kandinsky and Matisse."

In the back room of Niki Nichita's house there's a commotion. A dog is barking and a young girl is laughing. "Max, no, don't do that - you'll mess up my reds." Niki takes me to investigate and there it is, Alexandra's studio. It used to be a dining room, but now there are large canvases stacked everywhere and early examples of Alexandra's work hang from the walls. Alexandra herself is almost hidden behind racks of paint and brushes.

The eye can't capture the mix of colour all at once. Each bright surface grabs for attention, making it hard to see the room as a whole. In the centre, Alexandra is poised in front of a canvas with three brushes in her hands. Moving at lightning speed she mixes acrylic paint and applies the layers of colour which give definition to the many different shapes within her compositions.

Nothing distinguishes this scene from the studio of a master-painter - until brother Max attacks again and Alexandra becomes like any 10-year- old, rolling on the floor with her two-year-old brother. "Alexandra started at two," says Vionca. "She used to make these pictures with pen and ink until we bought her some watercolours, when she was five." Vionca beams and picks up Max, her expression a mix of pride and bemusement. "I don't know where she gets her talent. Nobody else in our family has anything like Alexandra's skill."

At the age of eight Alexandra exhibited her work at a public library in Costa Mesa, a smart neighbourhood of West Los Angeles. "Her paintings caused an instant stir," says Elmira Ardumian, who became Alexandra's teacher. "Within 12 months she'd had seven solo exhibitions at serious commercial galleries - some painters don't get that many in their entire life."

Ardumian worked with Alexandra for 18 months and introduced the "petite Picasso" to other young artists at Hollywood's Junior Art Center. "Last year I told her parents I couldn't teach Alexandra anything else, she had moved beyond me." Ardumian was especially struck by Alexandra's range of skills. "She is a genius of composition. Picasso had an extraordinary way with shapes but his use of colour was weak; Matisse had the reverse - great colours but his technical exposition of shape was faulty. Alexandra is a master of both shape and colour and that's why her work is so compelling."

When Alexandra was first noticed she was treated as a freak or a curiosity. Now her work has become the subject of serious studies by psychologists and academics, some of whom are critical. "People are too easily dazzled by virtuosity, and Alexandra certainly has that," says Roger Shepherd, chairman of the Fine Arts department at the prestigious Parsons School of Design. He saw Alexandra's work when she had her first New York show last year. It was a sell-out. "I think her sales teach you more about our perceptions than the art itself. If you tell enough people a painter is fashionable she will become fashionable."

Shepherd believes Alexandra may mature into a fine artist but it's too early to call her a genius. "With true artists like Durer or Mozart, despite their early virtuosity, the depth of their work increases as they experience more of life. You can tell the difference - Mozart couldn't have written the Requiem at the age of 12, but if he'd never reached that pinnacle we would have regarded his earlier work with a more critical eye."

Ben Valenty thinks Shepherd is missing the point. "When I first saw Alexandra's work I was suspicious. I thought it was a scam. I couldn't believe they had been painted by a child. Genius is not just a function of age. Alexandra has an imagination that seems to have tapped the stream of universal experience." Valenty believes Alexandra's subconscious operates in a different way to that of most other people. "It gives her a clarity of vision that allows her to see an extra dimension in everything. You can live to be a hundred and never achieve that. Experience may give us a more complex understanding of things but Alexandra has a quality which gave her that at birth."

IT'S three o'clock on a sunny afternoon. The month is January but the temperature is in the eighties. Alexandra is not out playing hide-and- seek because she has to visit a gallery that shows her work. Mum and Dad are there too, along with her grandfather. "I don't like the way you've displayed that," she says, speaking to the gallery owner with complete self-possession. We try to find a quiet corner because I need to talk to a 10-year-old about Braque, Kandinsky and Mir.

"I'm not a Cubist," she begins. "There are some elements in my painting of the shades and shapes of Cubism but I try to keep everything simple. That's a much better framework to carry all the detail in each painting." She leans forward, a twinkle in her beautiful blue eyes. "I love to hear people talk about my paintings, trying to figure them out. You could say that I put a little puzzle in each one."

Alexandra does not own a computer and she has never played a video game. "Why would I need to?" She points to a giant canvas that depicts her reinterpretation of the Snow White story. "These are my games, my playground is inside my head and in my paints and canvases. In each of my paintings I'm telling a story and that's what attracts attention to the painting. On the surface each of the paintings is about something simple but the strokes of the brushes may be very elaborate."

You might think Alexandra would feel unusual but she claims more children could do great work, with the right encouragement. "Adults underestimate children. Every child I know has a powerful imagination and that can be turned into a talent." But she still has a tough time explaining her work to her friends. "They are often shocked when they first see my paintings. At one of my schools a teacher told me off for drawing in an abstract style but my father moved me from there. I have to explain to my friends what each character in a painting is supposed to be and I say he's blue because he's sleepy or he's red because he's scared."

Niki Nichita says his daughter has had little formal training but that from the age of five she would look at art books belonging to his father. "She was especially fond of Picasso - always Picasso, and then after that Mir." Alexandra says she still looks at the work of past masters but not for inspiration. "Their pictures refresh my memory and take all the confusion out of my mind. I just relax a lot when I read about Braque or Kandinsky. When I look at their paintings I feel calm."

Unlike most children, Alexandra has no trouble keeping still. She has an athletic frame and looks a little like one of those gold-medal gymnasts that used to pour from behind the old Iron Curtain. When she wants to talk she holds herself upright and looks you directly in the eye. "I just paint what I feel," she says. "If I'm playing a game of cards sometimes I just know who is going to win, I can just feel it inside. When I'm painting I just know what colour to put where and which shape is going to attract the eye. I think all of that is inside me."

When she's in her studio, Alexandra paints with furious intensity. In a full day of work she can complete a large composition and still find time to play with Max. Her concentration is complete and she works the paint into different shades directly on the canvas. "I think I paint like that because I'm experimenting with varying levels of abstraction. I could never be a realist painter. I don't want to just copy a vase, that wouldn't be art. Painting requires you to use your imagination to produce something that does not already exist. A horse can have a human head, it can have 18 legs or a horse-head with human nostrils - it just has to be different."

That doesn't mean Alexandra is mixing surreal shapes at random. A current project is three paintings based on Disney's The Lion King. One hangs in the gallery behind us and her reinterpretation has a clear function. "The head of the Lion King expresses joy and sadness and bravery and doubt. I've seen the movie three times and he feels all those things at different times. I've tried to make my Lion King capture all the sides of what he goes through."

THE Lion King painting has a price tag of $150,000 and it's a tour de force. The paint has been applied and then textured. Each character has a sharp definition but within those boundaries they seem to be shifting, as though they might suddenly escape the canvas. "I think that painting proves she is a prodigy," says New York developmental psychologist David Feldman. "She seems to have been born with an understanding of shape and form. Plus she has the ability to fantasise and her fantasies are totally accessible to her and she seems to have absolute faith in their worth."

Feldman has worked with one other painter-prodigy, Wang Yani, a young Chinese woman who is now 16. "Including Alexandra, I only know of two children this century who could paint with such sophistication. Like Alexandra, Wang Yani is prodigious, she paints at great speed and has a tight-knit family to support her." Feldman worries more about Alexandra, though, because her situation is so different. "Wang Yani is still the youngest painter to have an exhibit at the Smithsonian in Washington but she lives in a remote part of China and paints in a traditional Chinese style. Alexandra lives in Los Angeles and her work is modern."

Most painters would die for the chance to cope with the pressures of success, but for Alexandra it could be a real problem. "She is going to become a global name," says Barbara Schiffman, who founded the Hollywood Screen Parents Association. "That usually spells trouble for somebody so young. People will want a piece of her and that can affect her painting. If her talent begins to tail away she will lose all the attention she's getting and that can be incredibly painful. For many child stars, their best years are over by the time they're 20."

To get away from such gloomy thoughts we go for pizza, a humble snack for a millionairess. "I am not doing this for the money, OK?" She threatens me with a pizza slice but I can't help wondering if her pocket money goes up each time she sells a painting. Alexandra almost chokes on an olive. "Noooo ... " she cries. "Where would I spend all the money? I don't need to spend. My parents buy me food and clothes. I get an allowance of $20 a month. They don't say, 'Oh, if you paint 20 paintings, I'll give you $3,000.' They are not making me paint. They're just letting me do what I want to do."

That said, the family will soon move out of reach of the Norwalk gangs, into a nice neighbourhood and that might affect her style. "No it won't," she snaps. "Even now I have quite a lot of money, but I don't go to the bank every two days and take out $100 to buy clothes. I'm saving it all for a college education for my baby brother and I."

"She won't have trouble with her school fees," says gallery-owner Ben Valenty. "You have to go back to Picasso's last years to see an artist's paintings selling this fast. We have a waiting list for everything she does and I don't know what the limit is on her prices. The paintings are in demand by some of the most serious collectors in the world."

As somebody who sells Alexandra's work Valenty has an interest in hyping her prices, but his evaluation of her skills is shared by more dispassionate judges. "At this age, I've never seen such a depth of pure talent," says Patricia Burdett, an art historian at UCLA. "She uses colours to capture emotions in ways that make you reappraise your own feelings. There was a painting she did about the Oklahoma City bombing - it's her Guernica and it's derivative, but she also brings something fresh to the theme by the way she uses colour and shape to make you feel the victims' suffering."

Money has made a practical difference in one way. Alexandra now has access to unlimited art supplies. "She can paint on a larger scale now," says her father. "We used to run out of money for big canvases." The Nichitas used to scour magazines for news of art-supply stores that had gone bankrupt. "We'd then visit and try to buy up canvas for cheap prices. We don't need to do that anymore."

Alexandra Nichita has left some wondering if she will lead a revival of Cubism, a suggestion that Roger Shepherd treats with derision. "Cubism is about a time and place. Now with Alexandra's work it's suddenly about a style. To revive Cubism would be nonsensical. To be truly great, she needs to invent a form of painting rooted in these times."

Alexandra agrees as we walk back to her house and she prepares for another evening of painting. "I am interested in Cubism but Picasso's time is past. Let's say I am building on his foundation." Strange words from a 10-year-old, especially one who has a grown-up art studio in one room, and next door has a child's bedroom complete with Pocahontas duvet cover and Barbie dolls.

"I love playing with my toys but then when I have had enough I am drawn back here, to my studio," she says, pulling an apron over her head and placing a tattered pair of pink slippers on her feet. She places a quarter in a cup for good luck and starts to mix paint. "I am going to Europe later this year and it would be an honour for me to personally give this painting to Queen Elizabeth because it is based on what has happened in Bosnia, where I know many British soldiers were killed."

"She watches a lot of television news," says Vionca Nichita. "She is always asking questions about events in Russia, in Chechnya, in Bosnia. Then she comes in here and paints. Some people think her work disrupts our home-life but it's the contrary. We are with her in this and her success enhances us all. She will go on to university and I'm sure she will continue to paint but we never feel her work is more important than her family."

MOZART is playing in Alexandra's studio; the only other sounds come from a guard dog in the Nichita's garage and the highway which is virtually in their back garden. Alexandra seems only to hear her inner voices as she works on the canvas. "I learn techniques as I'm working," she says. "For example, if I want to make the colour thicker I just find something to make the colours thicken."

Like a sorcerer. Picasso once said, "Painting isn't an aesthetic operation; it's a form of magic designed as a mediator between this strange and hostile world and us." He would probably have liked this young refugee conjuring beauty from nowhere in the midst of a bad neighbourhood. He may even have been a little jealous. Towards the end of his life he wrote, "I knew by the age of 18 that I could paint like Michelangelo but it took me 60 years to learn to paint like a child." Alexandra's admirers say she has skipped those six decades of education and is now ready to perform artistic miracles. Her critics say she has nothing to offer but technical wizardry.

But as Saturday night grows old, all she wants to do is play with her brother. "You are so beautiful," she coos. "Give me a big kiss." She seems aware that this is a display of youthful innocence for the camera and Alexandra can appear too knowing for her own good. Like any 10-year-old she loves attention, and she will need strong defences to avoid being spoilt. And as with any talented youngster, she must feel under pressure to fulfil expectations and satisfy demand. With the exception of the Lion King painting, some of her recent work looks unfinished, with areas of naked canvas. Fame is often a poor servant and always a bad master - that may be one lesson Alexandra has to learn from experience. !

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