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by Emma Gray
"David Hockney Portraits," the show of some 160 paintings, drawings, photographs, prints and more that opened at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, June 11-Sept. 4, 2006, is a homecoming of sorts for the celebrated British expat who reveled in California’s famous light as well as its special poolside lifestyle. The show, which originated in London and premiered in this country at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, is curiously conventional in its focus on portraiture. As it happens, the show illustrates the forceful role that biography plays in contemporary art.

The exhibition is anchored by two enormous paintings, both portraits from the 1960s of Los Angeles art collectors. One, titled American Collectors (1968), shows the art patrons Fred and Marcia Weisman standing in their backyard sculpture court, themselves as stylized and even abstract as the artworks and architecture that surrounds them. The second, Beverly Hills Housewife (1966), is a 12-foot-long portrait of collector Betty Freeman in her ultramodern glass house, complete with ornamental palm, stuffed antelope head and faux zebra skin Corbusier chaise lounge. Both pictures have a frozen, stylized feel that now seems the essence of Hollywood nouveau riche.

A third painting, Mr. and Mrs. Clark and Percy (1970-71), another example of Hockney’s "double portrait" series, is Hockney’s famous painting of the husband-and-wife team of Celia Birtwell and Ossie Clark, celebrated fashion designers during the Swinging Sixties in London. Birtwell, a longtime Hockney muse, has recently reignited her career as a designer, thanks in part to another London fashion fad, the Topshop fashion chain. As for Clark, his story is less happy. He fell into bankruptcy and drug addiction in the 1980s and was murdered by his (male) lover in 1996. For those who know the off-screen details, the tension between the two sitters, which seems to reach out and include the artist, is disquieting, to say the least.

LACMA has graciously provided a couple of sofas and chairs -- replicas of those in the paintings -- for viewers in need of a bit of rest.

Hockney’s California portraits also make fairly clear, as Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight has pointed out, a "social dimension of homosexual experience" that only began to come out into the open in the ‘60s. Exemplary here is Peter Getting Out of Nick’s Pool (1966), a curiously architectonic painting featuring his young boyfriend’s naked rear end. In works like these, Hockney’s intimacy with his sitters is complemented by his signature technique -- fresh, lean compositions, with a scratchy freehand line and unfinished chunks of canvas. Hockney pioneered the kind of loose, easy look that is so sought after by many of today’s young painters.

In the 1980s, Hockney seems to have come under the influence of Francis Bacon to unfortunate effect, though his seven-panel portrait of bad boy London restaurateur Peter Langan captures belly and booze in an impressive swill of brush marks. Among Hockney’s more recent works is Self-portrait with Charlie (2005), which shows the querulous painter, wearing fine tartan trousers etched in paint, peering out from behind the tall canvas, echoing Velazquez’ Las Meninas.

Some of the best pieces in this show are undoubtedly the drawings -- Hockney’s sheer mastery of the pencil proves that the camera is not always king. His 1968 line drawing of poet W. H Auden is sparse and keenly edited, with each etched wrinkle and crease conjuring up the spirit of the man. Also notable is the 2002 sketch of another British master portraitist, Lucien Freud. Freud sat for only three hours before getting fidgety. Hockney, ever the quiet-spoken Yorkshire man, repaid the favor by sitting for him for over 125 hours!

Today, Hockney’s artistic inspiration seems as simple as his technique. At its heart is an urge to record and share the images of his inner circle. One example is his relationship with Sidney Felsen and Joni Weyl, the famous print publishers and longtime Hockney collaborators, made real in a painting tilted Sid and Joni seated at table (2005). The couple first met Hockney in 1966, and were delighted when, after many years of personal and professional friendship, Hockney invited them to sit for him.

The couple diligently sat for the artist for dozens of hours over two weeks, while the artist worked away on two separate canvasses joined together. Frustrated, Hockney abandoned the project, dashing the hopes of Felsen and Weyl. Then, Hockney decided to give it one more try, and invited them back to sit once again -- and he completed the portrait in a just a day’s sitting, notably placing the couple together on a single canvas.

Felsen, whose business, Gemini G.E.L., is crucial to the art history of California, now stocks more than 18 Hockney prints, which can be seen on the company website. They range in price from roughly $3,000 to $8,000.

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Joel Mesler, who currently is exhibiting his work at Black Dragon Society in Chinatown, May 27-July 1, 2006, is something of a local Renaissance Man. The 30-something artist, musician, publisher, archivist and landlord started one of the first Chinatown Galleries, Diane Pruess, has his own print company, Pruess Press, and plays a crucial role in the downtown arts enclave, often helping negotiate leases with Chinese landlords.

He’s combined several of his enterprises in his Black Dragon exhibition. On the left wall is a wild, floor-to-ceiling display of gnarly figurative paintings, so animated in their action that they seem to climb the gallery walls by their sheer energy alone. Nudes, nuts and antic scenes are installed cheek to jowl, with painted hands everywhere and on everything. The best painting features a rangy dude in dark glasses, slim-fitting suit and white pointy boots -- it turns out to be none other than fellow dealer and compatriot David Kordansky.

On the right wall is an installation of Pruess Press prints, works by Andre Butzer, Charles Irvin, Steve Canaday and Thomas Zipp. On the back wall is a collection of memorabilia, notes, leases and photos of Mesler shaking hands with various business partners, while a table in the center of the gallery holds copies of his magazine, The Rambler. Downstairs, in what quite literally feels (and smells) like the bowels of Chinatown, Mesler has set up a speakeasy, replete with drum kit, guitars and a bar -- which Mesler himself mans every Thursday night.

Not satisfied with his fiefdom, Mesler has taken a lease on a 6,600-square-foot space near Chung King Road and plans to convert it into 10 art studios, a dive bar/private members club called "Juke Joint," and a photography studio devoted to art world photographer Josh White, who shoots the art installations for nearly every major museum and gallery in town. The venture is set to open in September, once the current tenants -- a particularly tenacious mahjong game -- move out.

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Down at Bergamot Station in Santa Monica, the dark Germanic tones of Thomas Zipp’s paintings at Patrick Painter Gallery, May 20-July 1, 2006, actually may prompt visitors to remove their sunglasses. Zipp’s beautifully rendered images of apples, a frequent motif in his paintings, often made geometric and strange, have an art-historical resonance, though they are supposed to represent atom bombs (and they also work perfectly well as heads). The large chandelier of fluorescent tubes that hangs from the ceiling, however, speaks not only of illumination, but of some blistering radiation machine, a kind of giant kebab grill that annihilates as opposed to warming.

Zipp’s arrival in Los Angeles is accompanied by a lot of buzz. He exhibited in New York at Harris Lieberman and also at Daniel Hug’s gallery in Chinatown. My favorite painting at Painter, 4,1,1 (2006), is not for sale, but all the others sold immediately with prices ranging from $1,300-$9,000 for smaller paintings, and around $91,000 for the largest ones.

Two doors down at Rosamund Felsen Gallery, Stephen Hull’s marauding monsters and gloopy painted characters (reminiscent of the Rhode Island collective Forcefield’s installations) come alive on the walls, and guide you through a journey of buccaneers, demons with third eyes and upside-down blue heads. Hull, a sometime pirate, father, publisher and artist, demonstrates formal, painterly sensibilities without losing any of the fun. With the smaller pieces selling at around $1,000, these heroic paintings are like the happy face of the end of the world. The show is on view through July 1, 2006.

Taking a momentary divergence from painting -- "The Aleph," a show curated by Nu Nguyen at Sandroni Rey Gallery, May 20-June 24, 2006, borrows its name from Jorge Luis Borges’ fictional account of his confrontation with the so-called "aleph," a window onto everything. Two sculptures steal the show: John EspinosasInfinite Collapse, which holds 50 gallons of hermetically sealed saltwater from the Bermuda Triangle, is entirely transporting, while Zeta, consisting of three wigs attached to a marked triangle with attached TV screens transmitting fuzz spliced with images of the piece itself, is spooky and Roswell-esque, as intended. In the same show, the untitled paintings by Daniel Hesidence nearly made me lose my lunch: They convey hideously eaten off faces and sore-infested elbows. At around $5,500 for each painting, I don’t know that I could live with one of these above my sofa.

Finally, Frances Stark’s exhibition with the remarkable title "Structures That Fit My Opening," at Marc Foxx Gallery, May 27-June 24, 2006, were a breath of fresh air -- especially on the evening of the opening, where temperatures were particularly high (though not quite so high as at the next door opening of Kehinde Wiley at Roberts & Tilton, where the installation was graced by heat-trapping velvet flocked walls and damask curtains). With a quartet of violins playing classical versions of neo-soul hits, caviar and champagne flowing and too much social vogueing -- the display was overwhelming.

Not to player-hate, but is this perfectly rendered work all fur coat and no knickers? Stark may use a silk sleeve to convey a snails head on the title piece, but her originality and light touch with a range of different materials owe much to the simple-honed skills of drawing and collage exemplified by artists like. . . David Hockney.

EMMA GRAY is West Coast editor of ArtReview.