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.

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