25 February 2009

My Kid Could Paint That

Very interesting documentary about Marla Olmstead, who stunned the art world when she was four with an exhibition of startlingly accomplished abstract paintings. The documentary starts by focusing on Marla's family environment,the impact of fame, money, questions of what is art and what makes art valuable, and so on, and then, with the advent of a 60 Minutes segment that calls into question whether the paintings are indeed Marla's, the film maker begins to explore his own doubts.

Marla's paintings, shown in the film and also here, are really quite beautiful. They are also remarkably diverse. Marla's father is suggested to be the "real" painter of these works, via coaching, but a couple of his paintings appear in the film, and, frankly, they stink. And I just don't see how these paintings could be produced by coaching.

In our home, we have two paintings done by elephants, which we picked up in Chiang Mai, Thailand, at an elephant camp where we watched elephants paint. They really do paint--trained from an early age, they work hand-in-trunk with a mahout, who provides brushes dipped in color. We explain to our amazed friends that each elephant is trained to paint a certain kind of picture: some paint flowers or trees, others abstractions of various types. No one suggests that an elephant sees a tree, gets inspired, and paints it. It's a learned activity, the result of which can be quite beautiful.

Those elephant paintings are coached, and it's easy to see how that's done. They are relatively simple, examples of particular motifs and techniques.

Marla's paintings are something else. They are complex and composed. Someone painted them.

The owner of the Binghamton, New York, gallery that first introduced Marla's work to the art world is perhaps a more likely suspect than Marla's father--a skilled hyper-realist painter, old friend of Marla's father, with quite a store of resentment against abstract art, where most of the big art money goes. But to believe that someone else might have painted these works requires not only that you believe that an elaborate hoax has been perpetrated for more than six years (and counting, as Marla is still painting); in addition, it ignores the fact that these paintings are really quite good.

If someone could paint that well, why wouldn't he do so using his own name?

One thing I would like to see is Marla's more recent work. Her website seems to focus on early work (I recognize pieces I saw in the movie). I am wondering how her paintings have changed. Have they become more ordinary? (I wonder this because I don't see recent ones on the site.)

Good, provocative documentary. Puzzling mystery. Lovely artwork, whoever made it.

12 February 2009

Trader Joe's Love

Products I love:
Triple Ginger Snaps
Beef tamales
Dried California apricots

Products I miss:
Black pepper roasted cashews
Kiss My Face pear soap

11 February 2009


Just when you get to thinking all old movies are great, a movie like this comes along and disabuses you of the notion. Flimsy premise, unsympathetic heroine, altogether unconvincing.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

Not funny. Stupid, rather.

Couldn't get through it, in spite of music by Sondheim (I understand a lot of the original songs were cut).

05 February 2009

Harry N Abrams Art Books

I was in the Jacksonville Public Library yesterday browsing through the art section, and came across one of the most beautiful books I've ever seen: Collage, by Herta Wescher. This oversized 1971 volume is a translation from the German of an exhaustive history of art through the prism of collage. It contains beautiful plates, but before we even consider the pictures, one is struck by the quality of the paper, the binding, and the printing. Just beautiful. The layout features wide margins in which the author places notes, references, and even small illustrations--right next to the relevant text.

I think Abrams is famous for tipped-in pictures, or perhaps was--I have an Abrams book of Van Gogh pictures that I bought more than 20 years ago; the first time I had ever seen tipped-in pictures. The reproductions are of a really gorgeous quality, and even the black and white plates (which are bound in) look stunning.

After browsing through the Collage book for a while, I found an Abrams book on expressionism and a similar book called Master Watercolors of the Twentieth Century. Beautiful color plates, absolutely, but rather than being tipped-in, they are slipped-in, into mats, with two extra mats provided in a pocket just inside the back cover so that you can study the pictures "at your leisure."

If anybody is still making books like this, I want to know about it.

I look forward to spending more time at the library.

04 February 2009

Can We Talk (about Credibility)?

The HuffPost headline says "McCain's Revenge" and the media is lapping up the losing 2008 presidential candidate's excoriation of the stimulus bill, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, and President Obama's ethics.

Let's take these one at a time. McCain says the stimulus "really is a bad bill." Does he present any alternative?

Sure: the Republicans have consistently pushed for more tax cuts for wealthy Americans and corporations, as well as less government regulation, which is exactly the set of policies that that landed us in the mess we're in. Apart from McCain's much-publicized admission that he's relatively ignorant of economic issues and would be relying on advisors who have since been largely discredited, what has he done to establish any credibility in this area?

He smears Timothy Geithner by blaming him for the mismanagement of the first TARP installment because he was a "key advisor"--maybe he's forgotten that the people in charge of the TARP were Bush appointees?

And then he questions the President's commitment to his own ethics standards by pointing to nominees who have been withdrawn. This from a guy whose closest advisors were lobbyists for industries that have been instrumental in causing our economic problems.

I am sick of seeing Republicans in the media. They have brought us war-by-choice, torture-as-SOP, and civil rights-as-luxury, flushed our economy down the toilet, and continually stonewalled efforts to protect the planet and limit climate change. Their ideas have held sway for a solid 8 years (and I think a case could be made that they held sway for 28) and have left us in a place substantially worse than we were before they took over.

This is not a partisan observation. We are less healthy, less educated, less wealthy, less respected in the world--you name the area; we are almost certainly worse off.

And now we have a president who has been elected to lead us to a better future, and all the Republicans can do is call names.

I guess that's all they could ever do, since their ideas are bankrupt. Well, I hope they have fun getting advice from Joe the Plumber. He'll surely keep their ideas in the mainstream.

Oh. Most Americans don't hate Social Security? Well, doubtless if Joe knows best, along with Mr. "The fundamentals of our economy are sound."

02 February 2009

The Intuitionist

I have been trying to decide whether I have read an odder good novel. That is, I have read plenty of novels that were odd, but not worth a damn. This novel is both odd and really quite splendid. Author Colson Whitehead conjures an alternate universe in which elevator inspectors and engineers matter enormously. It is also an alternate universe in which the civil rights movement never happened; blacks are largely excluded from society's mainstream.

Whitehead writes with so much grace that you absolutely believe in his universe, and so much authority that you don't question why or how the universe got that way.

His heroine, the city's first black female elevator inspector, is an Intuitionist (there are two schools of inspection: empiricism and intuitionism); although Intuitionist methods are poorly understood and mistrusted by many, she has the highest accuracy rate in the department. The novel turns, however, on an incident that seems to point to her first failure; she sets herself to solving the mystery of how she could have been mistaken. In the process, she bumps up against political intrigues between Empiricists and Intuitionists who are battling for control of the elevator inspection guild, competing elevator manufacturing companies, and the mysterious background of the founder of Intuitionism.

The book succeeds in making you feel there is something profound about elevators, which is quite an accomplishment; from a philosophical point of view, Whitehead is less convincing: he challenges the practice of drawing conclusions from visible (or surface) evidence in favor of a mystical intuition. Since such talents don't reliably exist outside the fictive world, we can't really buy the notion that empiricism is not just wrong but racist; that is, we can buy it in a limited way (within the world of the novel)--we just can't take it with us.

Quite an extraordinary book, and beautifully done.