Tuesday, November 27, 2007


Kids paint the darndest things

By Edward Copeland
Most documentaries end up coming out with a specific point-of-view or a detached approach that just lets the viewer decide. With Amir Bar-Lev's My Kid Could Paint That, you see a documentary where the filmmaker is as uncertain of the truth as many viewers might be. It makes for quite a compelling piece of film and, in a way, one that is as abstract as the art at the center of its story.

For those unfamiliar with this documentary's tale, it concerns the explosion of popularity for an artist named Marla Olmstead, whose works one art expert says is worthy of hanging in the Met. Oh yeah: Marla was only 4 years old.

After a local gallery owner in her hometown of Binghamton, N.Y., displays her works, she becomes a sensation with a newspaper article that gets picked up by The New York Times, a followup piece in the Times and eventually a piece on 60 Minutes.

The TV report is where everything changes, as Charlie Rose questions whether the paintings truly were Marla's works or were part of a larger fraud being perpetrated on art collectors. It's at this point that My Kid Could Paint That really becomes interesting, as Bar-Lev begins to question the truth of the Olmsteads' story about their daughter as well.

The heart of the film though isn't so much about this particular child and her particular paintings as much about art in all its forms, specifically abstract, modern art such as by Jackson Pollock, which always have been greeted with skepticism.

As the New York Times' art critic Michael Kimmelman asks, what is truth and what is a lie when it comes to art? Does art have an obligation to explain itself? Would these paintings, if they'd been attributed to an adult, have garnered so much acclaim? Are collectors buying the story as much as the work itself?

If there is a sympathetic character to be found in this tale, it is Marla's mother, Laura, who seems relieved to let the phenomenon go away. If she were in on a scam, she's one helluva actress, but her feelings seem genuine when she asks what she's allowed to happen to her children.

At the same time, obvious villains in this story don't come easily either, though my vote goes to gallery owner Tony Brunelli, who admits on camera that he enjoyed the idea of making people who embrace abstract art look like fools since his own artistic bents are photorealistic. (Though I have to ask if he's telling the truth that the most he's ever sold one of his own paintings for is $100,000, would such a scam really have been worth his while?)

Marla's dad Mark also seems to be a willing co-conspirator, if such a conspiracy happened, and while many struggle hard to hang on to their belief that these works sprang solely from the brushstrokes of a child, it seems pretty clear to me that that isn't the truth. At one point, Marla tries to tell her dad that her little brother Zane painted one work all by himself as dad tries to ignore what she's saying. At another, Marla laughingly says while she's painting, "Help me out, dude" to her dad, and asks him if it's done or not.

While many worry about how this entire experience will affect the kids in years to come, Marla and her brother seem blissfully unaware of the things that are driving adults crazy. Ignorance may truly be bliss.

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