Four-year-old Marla Olmstead became a painter and a fraud all in one go. Nick Haramis investigates
My Kid Could Paint That, a documentary by Amir Bar-Lev. Opens tomorrow, 14 December, in film theatres across the UK
Art is subjective, celebrity fickle. Not exactly a revelation, except of course when applied to an innocent four-year-old with hazel eyes. Born in 2000, Marla Olmstead lived a typical childhood until she became the centre of a media blitzkrieg that raised a number of questions about art, fame and parenthood.
Marla’s father, Mark, is a factory worker from Binghamton, New York, who fancies himself an amateur painter. He is married to Laura, a dental assistant. Their daughter Marla, now seven, was encouraged to paint by Mark, who began showing his daughter’s work at a friend’s coffee shop. Large, colourful canvases, they reminded critics of embryonic works by a young Jackson Pollock. However, Marla’s trajectory would more closely align itself with art ‘celebrities’ like Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons.
Local art patron Anthony Brunelli invited Marla to show her work at his nearby gallery, at which point everyone from The New York Times to Good Morning America took notice of America’s newest (and youngest) artistic sweetheart. It was the scepticism of current affairs show 60 Minutes, however, that thrust the Olmstead family into the public eye. Its editorial soured an otherwise innocuous child prodigy narrative. Was Mark a proud father or an overbearing agent capitalising on his talented little girl? More to the point, was this little girl even talented? Or was Mark responsible for the work that eventually sold for five figures apiece?
These are two of the questions that director Amir Bar-Lev is desperate to answer in his second full-length documentary, My Kid Could Paint That. While the film sheds little light on Marla’s questionable abilities, it does illuminate the struggles of a family undone by the hazards of celebrity. Mother Laura openly dismisses the allure of stretch limos and television appearances, but Mark seems to revel in both. Of the Olmstead family, Bar-Lev has said: ‘What surprised me and intrigued me from the beginning was their ambivalence about all the attention’.
Bar-Lev, whose first documentary Fighter (2000) told the story of two Czech Holocaust survivors, was confronted by his own complicity in the spectacle. Chief art critic at The New York Times, Michael Kimmelman, tells the director on camera: ‘Your documentary on some level is going to be a lie.’ And he’s right. On many levels, the film never escapes the subjectivity of its captain, a man who wants nothing more than to debunk the myth of the cute girl who paints. In doing so, he feeds the monster of celebrity and replaces Mark and Laura as the primary arbiter of Marla’s exploitation. In making his film – his own art, essentially – Bar-Lev inflicts the very pain he wishes to investigate. His is a great cautionary portrait, but My Kid Could Paint That says more about the transience of celebrity than a painter’s artistic merit. And as far as this critic is concerned, even if my kid could paint that, I don’t think I’d want her to.
Nick Haramis is a New York-based editor at BlackBook magazine and editor-at-large of Canadian title Maisonneuve
Resume: If you think exploiting a pint-sized Pollock is lucrative, try making a documentary about it…