kiddie art a con?

kirsten krauth reviews my kid could paint that

My Kid Could Paint That

My Kid Could Paint That

WHEN I WAS A FOUR-YEAR-OLD MY MUM OFTEN TOOK ME TO THE ART GALLERY. I QUITE LIKED THE IMPRESSIONISTS, THE VAN GOGHS, THAT FREDERICK MCCUBBIN WITH A WOMAN HOLDING HER BABY ON HER LAP. I COULD UNDERSTAND THEM. THE PICASSOS I WASN’T SO KEEN ON. AND ANYTHING WITH A RED TRIANGLE ON A WHITE CANVAS, SPLODGES OF PAINT THROWN ON OR A HORIZONTAL LINE DRIBBLING ACROSS WITH A SHAKY HAND MET WITH ANGER AND FRUSTRATION, AND LOTS OF DEMANDS TO MY MOTHER. “WHY IS THAT HANGING IN THE GALLERY! I COULD DO THAT!” SHE ALWAYS HAD THE SAME REPLY: “MAYBE, BUT YOU DIDN’T.”

Meet another four-year-old. Marla. She’s certainly done it. She’s sold over $300,000 worth of abstract art. Oprah Winfrey’s on the phone. Crayola’s keen to be a sponsor. Her buyers talk of her artwork in hushed tones as if the canvases have been touched by the hands of an angel. They imagine the works as full of her childlike spirit, her innocence. A man sees a door opening onto new worlds. A woman just loves the Mickey Mouse ears. As Michael Kimmelman, New York Times chief art critic says in the film, “…no one is saying fuck you in this picture. They’re just saying I’m a happy girl who likes painting.” But Marla doesn’t want to expound on the symbolism or lack of irony in her work. “No!” is her firm answer whenever doco-maker Amir Bar-Lev asks whether she wants to talk about her art. And Marla doesn’t seem to want to make much art either, not on camera anyway, and not in the colours and techniques she’s expected to.

When Bar-Lev first gets filming, he believes in the work of Marla; she’s at the (short) peak of her success. Parents Mark (a painter himself, keen to push his child into the limelight) and Laura (“if this ends today, I’ll be happy”) let him into their home and the often cynical world of their friend, gallery owner and hyper-realist painter Anthony Brunelli, who sees the possibilities (“these kids could be on a Gap commercial”) and exploits them for all they’re worth.

As Bar-Lev pushes deeper, and the media begin to turn after an expose on CBS’s 60 Minutes claiming she’s a fraud (they plant a hidden camera in the Olmstead house), the filmmaker, along with the audience, starts to have doubts—is she really doing the artwork?; is her father directing or bullying?; does he finish them off himself?; why can’t she seem to create such masterpieces for the camera? But Marla’s dad has read the literature and is always one step ahead. He tells the filmmaker that once you measure something, you alter it. The only problem for him is, it’s hard to control the wayward conversation of a four-year-old. Much is revealed by Marla’s younger brother Zane, who brags: “When I was at the hospital, when I was in mummy’s tummy, I was painting on the table.” Now there’s a child prodigy: I imagine the artworks nestled in his mum’s womb, protected like cave paintings.

Like Maciek Wszelaki's great Australian doco Original Schtick (1999), which covered similar territory about the artist Bob Fischer, this film isn’t really so interested in whether the art’s authentic or not, but at the public and media reaction when things turn sour. Bar-Lev digs into the underlying fears of a community who have no rules to play by when judging whether art is ‘good’ or ‘bad’, who distrust an artworld based on increasing commercialism and who still see art as representing some sort of ‘truth.' If a child can paint a masterpiece, where are the standards by which to judge a Pollock? It’s an old debate but it still seems to upset people. A lot. After 60 Minutes airs, Marla’s parents are assaulted and attacked via email as traitors, even as sinners marked to burn in hell. As Kimmelman points out, people take the idea of modern art as an insult, it says ‘you’re stupid and I’m not’, breeding a collective insecurity.

But what I’m left debating is the widespread desperate desire to dress up a child in adult clothes, spin her around in high heels, and then strip her bare, exposed to the world. But then, here I am in the audience, devouring this wonderful documentary like a wolf, hungry for more to chew up and spit out…

My Kid Could Paint That, director, producer Amir Bar-Lev, editors John Walter, Michael Levine, directors of photography Matt Boyd, Nelson Hume, Bill Turnley, original score Rondo Brothers, A&E Indie Films [US]

RealTime issue #81 Oct-Nov 2007 pg.

© Kirsten Krauth; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 October 2007