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PORTRAITS OF THE ARTIST HOCKNEY EXHIBITION AT LACMA SPOTLIGHTS THE CELEBRATED.

Byline: Evan Henerson Staff Writer

There have actually been instances when coveted models have been unable to model for celebrated Los Angeles artist David Hockney.

If the walls of a current exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art are any indication, this doesn't happen often. But Hockney insists that there are logistical challenges.

And when it does, the 68-year-old artist knows how to cajole.

``I do have a bit of difficulty getting people on the right day,'' a droll Hockney says at the opening of his latest LACMA exhibition, ``David Hockney Portraits.'' ``And I do tell them about Betty Lisa ...''

Betty Lisa? OK, we'll bite.

``She was going to be painted by this artist,'' Hockney recounts. ``Everything was laid out, and at the last minute, she couldn't go. So she sent her sister, Mona.''

Ba rum pum!

He can well afford to be jocular. For all intents and purposes, Hockney -- the Yorkshire-born painter, photographer and set designer who has long embraced L.A. as a subject and creative outlet -- is home.

``Portraits,'' a co-presentation with the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the National Portrait Gallery, London, is Hockney's third major LACMA retrospective. Curated by good friend Stephanie Barron, ``Portraits'' contains some 160 works spanning more than 50 years of the artist's life.

The exhibit consists of watercolors, etchings, photography, pen and ink, photo collages and camera lucida portraits. His models are friends, family, lovers, fellow artists and Hockney himself. LACMA has augmented the traveling exhibition with photo albums, letters, sketchbooks and Hockney works from the museum's permanent collection.

Curator Barron, one of the ``112 L.A. Visitors'' to Hockney's studio during that 1990-91 series, appears in ``Portraits.'' As do celebrated figures like Divine, Billy Wilder, Christopher Isherwood, Pablo Picasso and a who's who of men and women who have passed through Hockney's studio and life. The exhibition concludes with large-scale portraits from 2005, many depicting pairs of people.

``All portraits, you assume they should look like the person, but even photographs can be taken that don't look like the people,'' says Hockney. ``It's why, on the whole, I'm keener to do people I know. I can be a little more sure what they look like, really.''

Many of the recent sitters attended the LACMA opening, standing by their portraits and recounting how it felt to receive the Hockney artistic treatment.

For longtime Hockney friend Charlie Scheips -- an independent curator who appears in three ``Portraits'' portraits -- resemblance between the subject and the final product has never been a key component. And vanity is left at the door as well.

``It was more about the years and experiences we have had,'' says Scheips. ``I didn't really care if he captured me or did I look handsome or sad, or fat or happy or whatever. I think the jury will always still be out. If I live to be 80, I'll love that portrait of me when I'm 46.''

It's Scheips who appears on the ``Portraits'' exhibit cover image: ``Self-Portrait With Charlie.'' Scheips sits on a table in the background. Hockney, who appears to be painting Scheips' portrait, stands at an unseen canvas in the foreground holding three paint brushes and gazing somewhat quizzically at the artist painting him.

``I have not been able to find an example of the artist in the foreground and the subject in the background in the history of art,'' says Scheips. ``I think this is a very interesting picture despite my being in it.''

Dr. Leon Banks, another frequent model over the years, has enjoyed his artistic association with Hockney over the years as well, sitting at infrequent intervals for what has become a ``visual diary.''

``Every 10 years or so, he's done a portrait or a drawing,'' says Banks. ``The shirt, the tie and the very professional manner... I think he captures the person I am.''

When a portrait contains more than one person, the exhibit notations make a point of giving the viewer key information about the relationship between subjects: which couples were close at the time of the sitting and which were on the rocks.

In ``Mr. and Mrs. Clark and Percy'' (1970-71), for example, the title card notes that fashion designer Celia Birtwell -- Hockney's close friend and frequent model -- and husband Ossie Clark would separate shortly after the painting was created. The piece itself seems to depict distance and possible tension.

The poses of curator Marco Livingstone and his partner, Stephen Stuart-Smith (2002), who sit with their knees touching -- poses selected by the models -- speaks of a greater intimacy.

``I asked for two people just because of the way they react to the room, the way they sit down, stand up, look to each other and scrutinize,'' says Hockney. ``It's amazing what signs you can get just from the way people cross their legs.''

Frequent Hockney themes are reflected in his earlier works. Former lover Peter Schlesinger emerges naked from Nick Wilder's pool in the 1966 portrait that exemplifies L.A. newcomer Hockney's conception of paradisaical, sunny SoCal.

``Beverly Hills Housewife,'' another well-known Hockney work, developed when the artist planned to photograph good friend Betty Freeman's swimming pool and ended up painting Freeman instead. Hockney recalled painting the 6-by-12-foot double-canvas acrylic while living in ``a small, shallow shack on Pico Boulevard.''

Hockney says he could barely get more than 5 feet from the ``Beverly Hills Housewife'' canvas even while painting it. Viewers of the LACMA exhibition won't have that problem.

``I think (the exhibition is) stunning here. We have lots of space, and you can get away from some of the pictures,'' Hockney says. ``I don't like small spaces. I like big spaces, which is why the American West is so attractive.''

Evan Henerson, (818) 713-3651

evan.henerson@dailynews.com

DAVID HOCKNEY PORTRAITS

Where: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., L.A.

When: Noon to 8 p.m. Monday, Tuesday and Thursday; 1 to 9 p.m. Friday; 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Through Sept. 4.

Tickets: $12 to $15, which includes admission to the entire museum. (323) 857-6000 or visit www.lacma.org.

CAPTION(S):

4 photos

Photo:

(1 -- color) ``Mr. and Mrs. Clark and Percy,'' 1970-71

(2 -- color) ``Beverly Hills Housewife,'' 1966

(3 -- color) ``Self-Portrait With Charlie,'' 2005

(4 -- color) ``Henry,'' 1988
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jun 18, 2006
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