Feb. 13, 2008 - Issue #643: Breaking Up Is Hard To Do
Paint this: handling art with kid gloves
By late 2004, Marla’s work was attracting prices in the thousands and attention from media around the world. Documentarian Amir Bar-Lev read about Marla, called the Olmsteads, and was soon in Binghamton, his film backed by the BBC.
The frame for My Kid Could Paint That—playing at Metro with the Oscar-nominated NFB animated short Madame Tutli-Putli—is clear from the title. From those three stripes in the National Gallery to the latest Turner Prize winner, more and more people seem to think that the modern art world installs stuff that anyone can slap together. So Marla’s work seems to simultaneously prove that your kid can paint that Pollock-like smear of paint in MOMA and that art can still be, as one person puts it to Bar-Lev, “genuine and honest.”
Marla’s middle-class parents certainly seem genuine and honest. Laura’s especially wary, refusing to label her daughter with that freak-flirting word “prodigy.” Like Elizabeth Cohen, the first journalist to cover the Olmsteads, she worries that the story will take on a life of its own. And in February 2005, 60 Minutes II airs a segment where a child psychologist, studying a painting the show was allowed to secretly film Marla creating, declares no evidence of prodigious talent. The show even suggests that Marla’s father, Mark, helped.
So My Kid Could Paint That becomes an art mystery, where we try to figure out if these paintings really are genuine and honest. But what else is so eerie and intriguing here are the many adults who paint themselves into contradictions and corners but are unwilling to step away. Bar-Lev becomes increasingly skeptical about the Olmsteads and Marla’s work—he turns the camera on himself and wonders why he is making the film.
Anthony Brunelli says he got involved because he thinks the modern art world is something of a scam and here was a great marketing opportunity—he seems to walk away after demand disappears because of the news-show, but then he returns, schmoozing and selling at another Marla exhibit opening. Laura, almost happy when the fame bubble bursts, becomes concerned that they be exonerated and even mentions taking a polygraph—“I need you to believe me,” she tells Bar-Lev.
Ignored, as Bar-Lev points out at the end, is a little girl. The paintings become colourfully self-deluded distortions of a world where adults project themselves back into childhood, capitalizing on both the adult nostalgia for innocence and our fascination with children who seem somehow adult. Mark’s especially happy to see his daughter in the spotlight. There’s little concern about separating the artist from the art (why does a four-year-old have to be at a gallery opening or on TV shows?)
If a child is utterly un-self-conscious about art, promotion and market prices, can she be un-influenced by the attention? Marla knows her paintings are shown while her neglected brother Zane’s won’t be. To my (admittedly amateur) eye, the revelation of My Kid Could Paint That comes when we see the paintings that cameras capture Marla making. They’re not the same as the other work—they’re more figurative, cruder, more obviously child-like. Because she’s on film? Or not being helped by her father? (The film omits Brunelli’s high-school tie to Mark and other details, but most glaring is its failure to analyze and note technique, as though abstract art can’t be assessed, appreciated and compared.)
What child—even a young Mozart—plays or writes or draws without parental help? Why can’t Mark admit to guiding or coaxing her to paint in certain ways? (In some footage he urges her to paint or she asks him to help.) How are children influenced by adults in countless subtle ways to do this or not do that, ways that would shape and change Marla’s canvases?
Marla Olmstead seems innocent of the controversy that swirled around her for a time. The website promoting her is going strong and the paintings attributed to her still sell. Bar-Lev’s film, at least, is honest in its admission that all art, even a documentary, is a kind of “lie ... [a] construction of things,” as New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman puts it. But behind Marla’s art, is there more of a lie, a lie that some adults around her have been painting for years? V
Fri, Feb 15 - Mon, Feb 18 (7 pm)
My Kid Could Paint That
Directed by Amir Bar-Lev
Screening with Madame Tutli-Putli
Metro Cinema, $10
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