Friday, December 03, 2010

My Kid Could Paint That (2007)

USA/UK, 82 minutes, documentary
Director: Amir Bar-Lev
Photography: Matt Boyd, Nelson Hume, Bill Turnley
Editors: Michael Levine, John W. Walter

As filmmaker Amir Bar-Lev can be heard mentioning at one point, this started out as a documentary "about modern art," by which I think he meant mostly the post-WWII American work that spun out of New York starting with abstract expressionism and continuing on through post-Warhol pop art, much of which eventually came to command grotesquely bloated prices. Bar-Lev focuses for the purpose on the work of Marla Olmstead of Binghamton, New York, who made a splash in the art world circa 2005 as a 4-year-old with her vivid abstract canvases (see website). He sketches out the story of how her work came to attention first in a Binghamton coffeeshop, where the owner thought it would be funny to hang her paintings. But when people started wanting to buy them the ball started rolling. Eventually Marla's work ended up in a local gallery, then showing and reviewed in New York, and then the freakish nature of the story—preschooler as brilliant abstract expressionist—took over. Midway through the filming of this, the hysteria reaches the point where a "60 Minutes" piece airs about Marla. An astute media observer here notes that these kinds of stories, once they take on a life of their own, sooner or later become about the controversy they raise, even if they have to invent new twists. In this case it was exactly that "60 Minutes" story, which pointedly if rather cheaply questioned whether or not Marla is the one producing, or at least completing, the work credited to her. And so the undermining seed is planted, and this film limps home attempting to solve the arguably off the point but deeply puzzling mystery. The questions it raises are pointedly difficult. Do you like abstract art? Why? Do you like it less if it is produced by a kid? Why? Do you like it less if it is produced by her father? Why? Does your opinion about an artwork change after you learn personal details of an artist's life? Why? Is it impossible to form a judgment about art if you don't have information about the artist? Why? So forth and so on. I think a lot of the paintings credited to Marla are great, and when the various art critics and lovers of her work start bringing it it's hard not to be even more impressed. At one point the elements of one painting are lovingly analyzed by an enthusiastic owner, and make reasonably plain just how impressive the work is. At the same time, I have to admit that the mystery can't help but give me some pause. If the father is actually the artist, why doesn't he take credit? If Marla is actually the artist, why can't her production of it be captured on film? In fact, one of her paintings is produced on film, but now the problem is embedded at deeper levels: somehow that painting doesn't seem up to the quality of her other work. But is that true, or has that become a problem of the personal bias created by what we know or think we know? I'm not sure we'll ever get the answers to many of these questions, at least not any time soon—though the work that can be seen at the website seems to me even better than what's on view here, which is encouraging. For now, we may have to accept that this movie and Marla's (and/or her father's) work seem to be one of those points where we find "reality" utterly pixelated. For that reason alone it is eminently worth checking out.

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