My Kid Could Paint That: Is There Anything There? Marla Painting, Pollock Painting, and Abstract Art in the 21st Century

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Art on Film I: Pollock Painting

Probably the most famous example of an artist filmed in the process of painting an artwork is the brief colour footage of Jackson Pollock shot by Hans Namuth at Pollock's studio (and home) in Springs, Long Island in 1950. Two different moments are extant: the first depicts Pollock out of doors working on an already-in-progress canvas spread out in front of him on a concrete platform. He holds cans of liquid paint and we watch while he walks along the very long but narrow canvas bending over or kneeling to drip the fluid paint where he deems appropriate. (1) The second, more of a complete narrative, documents the entire genesis of a unique work, again done out of doors, on a large plate of glass set upon a wooden trestle, the camera placed underneath shooting upwards through the glass towards the blue sky. In this way, the viewer has privileged access to the actual creative process of the artist; we see Pollock place various bits of coloured plastic, pebbles, wire mesh and string down on the surface of the glass; and then methodically drip skeins of liquid paint on top of them, sealing them down and incorporating them into the artwork. The film ends with Pollock signing and dating a glass plate shot in the same way but notably not the same piece as before: the date is 1951, when the film was finished, not 1950, when the painting was completed. (2)

These few moments of film hold an iconic place in art history, for they transformed the image of the artist from private individual into public performer. In addition, the very activity of painting abstractly, thus caught by the camera, could be (mis)perceived and hence understood (only) as a choreography, a dance, that is, a "mindless" physical bodily performance, rather than as a series of decisions consciously (or unconsciously) enacted on a surface. In the public arena, all emphasis was placed on Pollock's unorthodox method (Time magazine's "Jack the Dripper") and tragic life; his context and situated historical importance overshadowed by the romantic mythology that ensued. The art world's "serious artist" reduced to popular culture's "notorious celebrity". Fifty-five years later, a film screened at this year's Toronto International Film festival caught another individual painting on film, thus presenting us with an opportunity to reflect on the cultural ramifications produced when a 4 year old girl is substituted for a 40 year old male.

Art on Film II: Maria Painting

Amir Bar-Lev's film My Kid Could Paint That (2007) covers many bases. It is at once a documentary about Marla Olmstead, a four year old girl whose abstract paintings were, and perhaps still are, taken as serious art; the unexpected unfolding of an investigation into the possibility of an art fraud perpetrated by Marla's father, who might be the actual artist or at least the eminence grise behind the paintings; a study of what appears to be the perfect all-American young family- beautiful blonde haired mother, handsome father, cute little boy and even cuter little girl- in success and then in crisis; an expose of the American public's obsession with a) cute little girls and b) abstract art as a fraud perpetrated by the art world on a gullible audience.

Of all these possible paths for discussion and investigation, it's the way in which My Kid Could Paint That participates in the on-going conversation surrounding abstract art's reception that is of major interest to me. It is a curious yet seminal fact that this film refuses to answer the question "Is there anything there?" with regards to the value of the art ... from the choice of the title (a typical sarcastic response when someone is confronted with an abstract work) to the open ending (we never do find out the "truth" about the paintings' authorship), we are on our own.

My Kid Could Paint That reveals to us a contradictory logic, a classic Freudian "disavowal" wherein the subject can hold two contradictory ideas in their head at the same time ("I know very well but nevertheless . …