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Abstract Reasoning 

On the walls of my office hang abstract paintings by my UNO colleagues Doyle Gertjejansen, Richard Johnson and Jim Richard. I love these works, and I announce this affection without any ability to articulate why I think they are beautiful. I simply know that their presence in my workspace gives me pleasure every day and every time I consider them. Therein lies the core worry bead of Amir Bar-Lev's My Kid Could Paint That. Richard Johnson reminds me that Picasso placed great value on the images that children produce. But can a child's enthusiasm for color and improvised form result in art to rival that of a trained artist's application of thought to instinct? Probably not. But if child prodigies have emerged in music, why not in painting? Thus Bar-Lev's look at 4-year-old sensation Marla Olmstead. Bar-Lev takes up Marla's story just as she begins to capture serious attention, and her canvases begin attracting buyers with deep pockets, four-figure bids giving way to five. Early scenes in My Kid Could Paint That detail how the process commenced. Marla's father Mark was an amateur artist who painted without ambition on the weekends. Then one Sunday when Marla was 3 and still in diapers, she picked up one of his bottles of paint, squeezed it on a canvas and began to spread it around with a spatula. Fascinated, Mark urged his daughter to continue, and pretty soon she had a completed work. Her career as an abstract expressionist was underway.

From the get-go, this achievement seems all the more remarkable because the footage Bar-Lev captures of Marla interacting with her younger brother Zane, her dad, and her mother Laura portrays her as an utterly normal child. She is shy and easily distracted, and she cannot or will not speak in complete sentences about her art works. Scenes showing her at work on new canvases involve a lot of squirting and some seemingly uncoordinated smearing but no apparent planning or coordination. Moreover, Bar-Lev is never able to capture her actually finishing something. Then the bottom opens up when Charlie Rose and 60 Minutes come in to do a feature that casts significant doubt on the notion that the paintings have really been made by the child herself.

Bar-Lev declares that he came to the Marla project as a believer. The Olmsteads give him full access to Marla and themselves. Mark loves the attention that Marla has garnered and is indignant at any insinuation that her work is a hoax. Laura has more mixed feelings, openly worried that Marla's notoriety will steal her childhood away. Still, she appeals to Bar-Lev to exonerate the Olmsteads from charges that her child's purported work has been at least carefully coached if not outright produced by Mark. This Bar-Lev is unable to do, for try as he might, his persistent camera can simply never capture the child completing anything.

In response to his failure to prove Marla a singular artist, Bar-Lev turns the camera on himself, on 60 Minutes and on the journalists who have inflated the bubble of a little girl's fame. Marla is most certainly an innocent. But everybody else has gotten something out of her story: a publication, a news broadcast, a documentary film. They made her, and even though Bar-Lev refuses to conclude directly that Mark painted her canvases, Bar-Lev and others unmake her. Isn't it all more than a little morally stained?

Along the way, inevitably, the film raises the thorny question of how we judge abstract art. Critic Michael Kimmelman addresses the underlying proposition directly: If a child can do it, isn't all of modern art a fraud? The answer, of course, is no. It isn't a fraud, even if a child could do it, though this particular child, Marla Olmstead, almost certainly has not. But articulating the standard is no easy proposition and certainly beyond the limited art education I have enjoyed. I do, however, take some comfort in the writing of art critic and Jackson Pollock advocate Clement Greenberg, who counseled viewers of abstract art to relax, to surrender expectations of 'meaning" and to let a painting's non-representational assemblage of form and color simply be. He comforted us that we were free to like or not like without fear of contradiction. I don't find those of Marla's paintings exhibited in the film particularly arresting. But others did, and despite the controversy over who really painted them, who is to say that the fans of Marla's paintings are wrong?

click to enlarge Marla Olmstead dabbles paint on one of her canvases. - 2007 SONY PICTURES CLASSICS
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