Sunday, October 14, 2007

The Age of Prodigy

Marla Olmstead.
Many have called her a child prodigy, though I would gather, not on the level of Picasso who created superb realist pieces before the age of 14.
Nonetheless, her fame began at the age of four, and its persistence beyond the usual one-hit-wonder factor leads me to ask this question:

Is she the artistic equivalent of Buddha: a mystic reincarnation of an artist's soul and at the age of seven, amazingly knowns more art history than most cram into a college degree?

I've noticed from looking at her work, that the "child prodigy" references a great deal of artists who have come before her.

A simple google search on her can produce a wide array of styles that very nearly emulate Kandinsky, Van Gogh (sunflowers above), Basquiat, Cy Twombly, and a host of others.

Take the piece above, which combines elements of several artists and is perhaps one of her most successful. It incorporates the line language of both Matisse and Picasso, color and compositional elements from Gauguin, and a non-objective collection of German Expressionists and American Ab-Ex. Though I, and many other artists I know, were doing abstract paintings at that age, we most assuredly didn't have the visual vocabulary or hand eye co-ordination to even pull off the variations in line weight, much less the cognitive focus for triangulation of color elements and textural variation.

I'm not saying that I don't think she could or should paint, nor that people shouldn't buy the work. I'm not even saying that I don't like or respect the work (some of it is pretty good). I'm just saying that Occam's razor tells me that her father at the very least touches up the paintings. But, hey - they've got a good thing going here. I hope they've founded a fulfilling father/daughter relationship working together in the studio, which I think is the most important thing.

Call it a performance piece, revealing the machines of the art market. Call it a challenge to the perception of what constitutes a "masterpiece" - such as would hang in a museum. Call it what you will. Just don't call it sincere.

To play the devil's (or divine) advocate for a moment, one might attribute this as evidence of some kind of afterlife or reincarnation, certainly proof of the existence of the soul. There have been documented cases of children purportedly recalling the lives and deaths of WWII fighter pilots, etc... Does this hinge upon whether or not you can rest upon abstract belief? If so, it seems to me that all art rests upon faith - in some form or another. And so, maybe the only important thing is the belief that such a child can exist. After all, children are the future, right? I would certainly like to have faith in their potential for brilliance.


Jacques de Beaufort said...

wasn't she revealed as a hoax in that movie "my kid could paint that" ?

New York City said...

I didn't see the movie, but I did see a special on 60 minutes that cast some serious doubt about her authenticity.

However, whether she was proven to be a hoax, she's still selling her work like hotcakes. Some people still argue that she's authentic.

What is it that compels people to continue buying? Do they really want to be part of history so much that they blind themselves to the truth? Or is it purely market forces?

DougH said...

Hey y'all

I don't want to harp on this (I already wrote about Marla twice for the LA Weekly - most recently here:

I thought I should point out that 'Ocean' - the very painting you picked out as near proof that Marla's dad assisted her - was in fact created by Marla from start to finish on film as a response to the initial negative publicity from 60 minutes!

I agree that it's one of her better pieces, but the director of the current documentary tries to assert that it is markedly inferior to the works created offscreen - as did Charlie Rose regarding the piece done for his 'news' segment.

A couple of points I left out of my Weekly piece:

Kandinsky was a big collector of children's art and there's pretty compelling evidence that his first abstract paintings were inspired by - if not directly copied from - kid's paintings.

Many contemporary artists - including painters like Al Held, Ed Ruscha, etc etc - have employed other artists to do some or all of the actual painting on canvases which are then marketed under their names. One of the smaller dirty secrets of the modern art world.

New York City said...

Thanks for the comment. I'm well aware of the "dirty secrets" of the art world as I am a painter currently in the employ of Jeff Koons. However, he doesn't pretend that he paints his own work - that's part of his Andy Warhol shtick.

Also, I don't doubt that Marla paints these. I am simply saying that she doesn't finish them. I have studied art history and painted for 21 years (since the age of 6). I have since acquired a BFA and MFA in painting. I will not speak from the angle of psychology because that is not my field of specialty, though I must say that it is generally accepted that a 4 or 7 year old is not cognitively developed enough think abstractly enough to paint such a piece, let alone have the hand-eye coordination or even patience necessary.

In my own field of expertise, as a painter, I must say that it takes a painter with a great deal of background in art history to see the various techniques and visual languages that the work is drawing upon. Several of these visual elements hold such a close resemblance to previous artists that Occam's razor tells us that no matter how talented she is, she could not have spontaneously invented all of them. (Picasso was considered one of the greatest prodigies of all time and it took him a lifetime to invent most of the visual languages that she uses at the age of 7!) Therefore she must have learned these ideas and skills.

However, she could not have absorbed that amount of information in the limited amount of time she has had - let alone mastered the skills to reproduce them. Now if it had been a reference to one or even two artists... if she worked in a singular but incredible style - it might be feasible. Or even tell me that she produces one painting a year. But this is not the case. I won't go into details, but I see references to Van Gogh (burning blue ball), Gauguin, Matisse & Picasso (Ocean) Pollack, Brice Marden, Chagall (Dinosaur), Paul Klee (Black drags, Asian Sun), De Kooning, Kandinsky, etc...

Yes, modernism was about borrowing from the primitive - childhood and tribal traditions. But, by adults who's brains had developed sufficiently for the abstract thinking necessary for truly non-objective work, and they took many years to develop their stylistic languages improvising upon the work that had come before them.

Further, the work is highly inconsistent, showing great diversity of mark making in one piece (Ocean)and a "childlike" lack of dynamic paint application in another (Lollipop House).

What I'm saying essentially is this: Marla has talent. Her father has knowledge and experience but no talent (otherwise he would have already made it as a painter). She supplies the talent and he supplies the direction, experience, and the polish. I think they would do quite well even marketing it as such. Even at that it's remarkable. But what they propose is impossible. A film can lie just as convincingly as a politician can... all you need is editing.