That idea that art is not really about some truth, but it’s about some lie being foisted on the public. There’s a debunking quality to it. This seems genuine and honest. But abstract art and modern art in general are a kind of racket, a put on.
— Michael Kimmelman
I don’t think I would ever allow someone to come in and dissect us again.
— Laura Olmstead
“Do you ever wonder why I came up here?” asks Amir Bar-Lev. He’s speaking to Marla Olmstead, blond, sweet-faced, and four years old. And she knows exactly why he came: “Because my paintings are cool.”
This first exchange in My Kid Could Paint That succinctly lays out what’s at issue in the film and in Marla’s , namely, Marla’s work and self-image, as these are imbricated in an interlocking web of fame, art, and value. The fact that Marla even has work at the age of four is exactly what makes it “cool.” In 2004, when Marla’s paintings appeared in a gallery in her hometown of Binghamton, New York, word spread quickly. Abstract and colorful, swirling with seeming passion and inviting interpretation, the work caught the attention of a local journalist, Elizabeth Cohen. Her story inspired a piece in the New York Times. And then the Olmsteads’ lives changed.
Cohen says here that she cautioned Marla’s parents, asked them if they were sure they wanted to “go through with this.” And they did, then, not anticipating the chaos that came. As Marla’s renown expanded, Laura, a dental assistant, worked to maintain her daughter’s “ordinary” childhood (“I don’t want people to expect anything from her you wouldn’t expect from another four-year-old”), while Mark, amateur painter and night manager at a Frito Lay factory, began managing the career (“Mark deals with it a lot better,” says Laura, “he doesn’t see any bad side to it at all”). This developed exponentially: interviews with Inside Edition and Jane Pauley, limos and expensive hotels, gallery shows and increasing attention from enthusiastic collectors (“That’s what it was like to be child, so innocent!”).
Observing the family riding in limos and attending gallery openings, My Kid initially seems focused on the question Marla’s work raises for art as a social and business practice. Her parents aver that her painting is “maybe one of the only times you see her release herself.” This “self-expression” is remarkable, of course, reconfirming the appeal of the prodigy, or, as Cohen puts it, a “child masquerading as an adult in her paintings.” At the same time, the work offers a rebuke to the impenetrable and alienating world of “modern art.” As gallery owner Tony Brunelli says, “When I came across Marla’s work, it was like a gift from God. Suddenly, I’ve got an in to this world that I’ve never understood. The Times‘ Michael Kimmelman puts it another way: in Marla’s work, there is “no cynicism, no irony. There’s no ‘Fuck you’ in this picture.”
And so Marla’s work prompts questions about value, taste, and meaning. (If one collector sees a “door” in Marla’s painting and she doesn’t, is the door there and, perhaps more importantly, to whom does it matter?) For Laura, the questions are simultaneously more long-range and more immediate. “I’m trying to imagine her as an 18-year-old: would she have wanted to be on the Today Show? I don’t know.” Her concern becomes acute when the story changes again, for the Olmsteads and for the documentary, a moment quite remarkably captured on film. What seems set up to be a celebratory moment — Mark and Laura sit on their sofa to watch a 60 Minutes segment on Marla — turns suddenly dreadful, when Charlie Rose suggests Marla’s paintings are a hoax, and more specifically, that Mark has been making or doctoring them.
The Painting Ocean
My Kid marks the shift vividly, first as a sort of melodrama (with the TV light flickering on their falling faces, Mark and Laura wonder whether they can now trust Bar-Lev and his crew, more “media” they’ve invited into their lives), and second, as a fundamental documentary problem. Bar-Lev, who appears throughout the film interacting with all the Olmsteads, now embodies and voices doubts, the film highlighting its own effects on the family’s story. Bar-Lev is visibly conflicted, and honest with his subjects: “Some of the paintings,” he says gently, “seem to have big ideas, big adult-type ideas… Some of them look like they have more polish than others.”
To address his concerns, the Olmsteads offer even more access, hoping to repair what Laura calls their “reputation.” Here My Kid turns into another sort of movie, less “about modern art,” and more about documentary. Now the question of what’s real is not only focused on the paintings, but also on the film. So: Laura stands before her computer screen, reading ugly emails (“Don’t turn your daughter into a fraud”). While the emails are “real,” her reading of them for the camera is staged; if her upset is real, the interview in which she expresses it is staged. Bar-Lev stumbles through articulating his own doubts, Laura cries, and then tells him exactly what he’s found: “documentary gold,” a subject showing spontaneous emotion.
Laura’s naming of the “gold” is unsettling. Ever a self-aware subject, here she calls out the process per se, responding not only to questions but also to the literal and metaphorical machinery that is reframing her as she speaks. The moment parallels others, when Marla speaks to the cameraman or Bar-Lev, acknowledging and underlining the fact of her being filmed, even as the image approximates a child at play, or even at work. This attention to the apparatus is smart and disconcerting, and becomes thematic, as it challenges veracity in and as art — from painting to documentary to diurnal self-performance.
The movie repeatedly underlines its part in the storytelling. As Kimmelman tells Bar-Lev, “All art in some ways is a lie… Your documentary is a lie, your construction of things, how you wish to tell the truth.” The blurring of lies and truths is, of course, at the center of all aspects of Marla’s story, or more accurately, as Cohen describes it, this story about “grown-ups,” their desires and ambitions, their connections and apprehensions.
While My Kid doesn’t suggest that “truth is relative,” it doesn’t insist on a single judgment of truth. Instead, it asks viewers to ponder how certainty and doubt reinforce one another, how the need for truth creates its own truth.