The other night was a vivid swirl of dreams. I can dredge up only gestures now: images, moods, colors. I know Grace Jones was there. I know it was something like the end of the world. But vibrant and alive. I wasn’t afraid at all. I remember feeling someone else’s cool skin at my fingertips. Now I picture lavender, violet, blue. Pleasing shades. I don’t know if that is because those colors were present in the dream or if my mind has, after the fact, drawn a dotted line between my multi-faceted, thirty-seven year relationship with those colors and the way this dream made me feel as I lived it — a kind of impressionistic shorthand of neurochemistry.
In short, I have no idea what this dream meant or if it meant anything at all. I do know how it felt, and I know there was an organizing principle — or force — behind it. The force that is behind all dreams — and if dreams are a form of Deeper Consciousness and that sort of consciousness is a form of dream…well, then, it was the same Force that is behind Everything. (And no: I’m not channeling my inner Obi-Wan. Or, on second thought, maybe I am.)
Consider, if you will, the painting above. It is abstract. It is sort of purplish, pleasing. It is vaguely reminiscent of Impressionism. I think it is also governed by the very same organizing principle that gave shape and, more importantly, resonance to my dream and countless others. And — if you believe her parents and the art dealer who brokered her family’s way into the high stakes world of contemporary art — it is the work of an extremely precocious little girl in Binghamton, New York.
Ah, belief. And its kissing cousin, faith. Emily Dickinson has famously reported:
“Faith” is a fine invention
When Gentlemen can see –
But Microscopes are prudent
In an Emergency.
The idea, of course, is that faith will only get you so far. Faith has its place, its limits. Clearly ol’ Em was no Christian Scientist and neither am I.
Still, faith and art have always occupied the same realm. Always. There is reason to believe that ancient cave painters did double-duty as shamans, that their art was often nothing less than a kind of prayer. A communion with the unknowable, intuitive divine.
And that’s where the adorable Marla Olmstead comes in. If you are predisposed to believing that there is some font of divine creativity in each of us, just waiting to be tapped if we can simply be open-hearted and innocent and attentive enough, then you will readily — eagerly — embrace the notion that a little girl in Binghamton, New York, can, all by herself, make pictures that melt the hearts of jaded art brokers and collectors all over the world. And you might just break out your checkbook, too.
But break out one of Dickinson’s Microscopes and your faith gets tested.
Some background is in order. Trapped in his own artistic crisis — churning out television schlock that was driving him bonkers — filmmaker Amir Bar-Lev set about scanning the NYT every day until he found the subject for his next documentary. There he discovered the Olmsteads, who were just hitting the scene, and that was the germ of “My Kid Could Paint That,” which was released last year.
Bar-Lev got inside access to not just Marla’s artistic process but to the hum-drum of all things Olmstead. Think what you want about Marla’s authenticity or the choices her parents made through the whole process, one thing’s certain: these are ordinary, likeable folks. She’s a dental hygienist and he works in mid-management at a Frito-Lay factory. They’ve got a bit of a Dharma and Greg quality to them, if Dharma was a little more with it and Greg was a little less uptight. In short, they’re folks any self-respecting “progressive” might want to have over for supper. (And I defy any hetero-progressive man worth his arugula to watch this film and not come away with at least a tiny little crush on Laura Olmstead, Marla’s pretty, stylish, gracious, and tastefully tatted mom.)
To hear the Olmsteads — especially Mark, her father — tell it, Marla saw her father painting when she was a toddler and wanted to try her hand at it. She kept at it, started working with larger canvases, and before they knew it, they had a bunch of abstact paintings that looked like actual abstract paintings. All before she turned five.
They took the paintings to a local gallery on a lark. Of course the pictures sold like hotcakes, and the train was a-rolling. Then 60 Minutes came calling, hired an expert who watched a videotape of Marla painting a less-than-inspired (though not awful) original from start to finish — as a sometimes exasperated Mark could be heard coaching her — and the train got derailed. All this as Bar-Lev’s camera is rolling. The rest of the film is taken up with the resulting whodunit. Did she or didn’t she paint these paintings? How large a role did Mark play? And what about Anthony Brunelli, the frustrated hyper-realist painter and gallery owner who serves as Marla’s de facto agent? Could the Olmsteads prove, once and for all, that Marla’s work was all her own? (That’s the million-miles-an-hour version; click here for more details and video of Marla painting.)
“Money is the ultimate distorting thing.”
So offers NYT chief art critic Michael Kimmelman. It is certainly a ticklish thing, especially when the authenticity of top-dollar art is in question. To date, Marla has reportedly made hundreds of thousands of dollars on her work. Marla is not just an artist; she’s a brand.
And what brand is that? Genius. Pint-sized — if unadorned and unwitting — shaman. Proof of the organizing force that all too infrequently, all too fleetingly bubbles up into our waking world.
Also the narrative behind the making of the art. This sort of thing is the driving force in folk art as well. It’s not the work itself for its own sake; it’s the work as a tangible artifact of an extraordinary circumstance: art comes from the most unexpected places. Art is everywhere.
It is not Marla’s fault — nor even her parents’ — that these ideas are worth cash money, lots of it, in the aforementioned waking world. What’s interesting to me is how much more interesting everything gets if the branding and the commerce are removed from the equation.
Let’s be honest: in the film, Mark Olmstead comes across as pretty opportunistic and, on a gut level, I have a hard time trusting his word completely. (Of course, I have a crush on his wife, so I’m to be taken with a grain of salt.) Brunelli, the gallery owner, seems not only opportunistic but he admits he has an axe to grind with abstract art in general. He thinks it’s a sham, and he relished the irony of a 4-year-old garnering huge sums for her original paintings. “My Kid Could Do That” indeed.
Lost in this surface-level narrative tension, though, is the fact that Bar-Lev seems to have backed up on the answer to the question he says he wanted to answer in the first place. Is abstract art for real?
This film — and Marla Olmstead — says YES. ABSOLUTELY. OF COURSE.
If Marla is the sole progenitor of her work, the simple truth is a 4-year-old girl in Binghamton, New York, can make vibrant abstract art that, more often than not, takes your breath away. If it is her 4-year-old-ness that makes you doubt its authenticity as art, then you overrate rationality and intention (as Brunelli and most of the rest of the waking world clearly does).
If some of the paintings — the “good” ones — are somehow touched up (or even painted entirely) by someone else, then there is a discernible difference between abstract art that’s really working and a bunch of splats and spatters. It might not be quantifiable but it is discernible by many (though admittedly not all) people.
Either way, there is such a thing as abstract art. It can be evaluated and experienced, regardless of its source.
But where it really gets interesting — to me, anyway — is if there’s some measure of collaboration going on, which the film seems to argue.
First of all, what counts as collaboration? The canvases, the paints, the brushes — everything must be set up for her. Is that too much collaboration? And who decides what color paints she uses in a particular painting? Color is a huge deal in abstract art (in all art but especially abstract art). If someone else picks harmonious colors for her, is that too much collaboration?
Or what about when she mixes paint directly on the canvas — which she often does — and asks her parents what color they’re going to make? Is she relying too much on outside help or does it show an innate intention, an intuitive desire to make the right color for a particular effect she has in mind?
Then there’s the question of whether or not Mark actually has a direct hand in the paintings themselves. There’s a poignant scene in the film, when Bar-Lev is desperately (it’s obvious he likes the Olmsteads and really wants to believe them) trying to film Marla painting a picture that will show, without a shadow of a doubt, that she’s the real deal. That’s not to say she hasn’t been filmed. She has. Lots of times. It’s just that none of the paintings that have been filmed are quite as polished as the others.
In this particular scene, Marla — now five — is on the kitchen floor, hovering over the canvas, and she seems more interested in pretending the brush is some sort of magic wand. She’s clearly aware of the camera.
“Your turn to do it,” she says to Mark, and she holds out the brush for him. When he tells her no, she says, “You, paint a face.”
After what seems like a few more moments of impasse — there’s a cut and the camera changes positions — she tries again. “All right, just help me dude. Or tell me to be done or help. What one? Pick.”
Mark tries to get her to focus but she sticks to her guns. “I’m only gonna do one of those things,” she says. “You have to tell me what to do right now.”
At that point, Mark demures and tells her she can do whatever she wants. It’s also then that the film, once and for all, renders its verdict. These are not Marla’s paintings, not entirely.
Maybe this is where I admit I’m a hopeless relativist hack who has no standards, no understanding of what art really is. Because the thing is I can’t conjure any lasting outrage at Mark Olmstead. Does anyone think Earl Woods behaved any differently with his precocious progeny (who is himself one of the biggest brands on the planet)?
What the above exchange tells me is not just that Mark is involved, to some degree, in the creation of these paintings. More important, it tells me that Marla sees him as an equal partner. One she can boss just as much as he might boss her. Is that a recipe for later neurosis? You betcha. But if she really is an artist — or hell even if she’s just a regular human — she’s pretty much checked that box already.
So no. I’m not mad at Mark Olmstead. I wish I could afford one of his daughter’s paintings. More than that, I hope he truly understands what an opportunity this was, maybe still is. A breathtakingly rare and fleeting chance at creative communion with the genius of his own creation — that is to say, his unadorned and unwitting shaman of a daughter who may or may not be a prodigy.