His curiosity piqued by the human-interest story of a 4-year-old painter, documentary filmmaker Amir Bar-Lev set out to tackle persistent questions about nonfigurative art. If Marla's paintings were being hailed as museum-quality art, then could a child really have produced, say, Jackson Pollock's distinctive drips and squiggles? But Bar-Lev's film wound up being about a very different subject.
The artist in question is Marla Olmstead, a pretty, personable youngster from Binghamton, New York. Her mother, Laura, is a dental assistant. Her father, Mark, an amateur painter, manages the night shift at a nearby Fritos factory. Marla began by imitating her father, gleefully slathering paint first on paper, then on canvas. She never stopped, and on a whim, a family friend hung one of her brightly colored works in his cafe. Someone bought it, and within months Marla had been profiled by local journalist Elizabeth Cohen, who specialized in family and parenting issues. Soon Marla had her first local show at photo-realist painter Anthony Brunelli's fine-arts gallery. The inevitable wave of media coverage followed: Who could resist la piccolina Pollock, as one Italian paper dubbed Marla, and her smiling, low-key parents? Enter Bar-Lev, armed with his questions about modern art, and despite Laura's ongoing misgivings about thrusting a small child into the spotlight, the Olmsteads welcomed him into their home. But as Bar-Lev's film began to take shape, backlash was gathering. 60 Minutes gave a national platform to whispers that Mark may have contributed more than encouragement to Marla's paintings: Hidden-camera footage of Marla at work included her father's constant off-camera direction, and the finished painting looked markedly less polished than her others. Laura was devastated and Mark determined to prove the accusations false, giving their relationship with Bar-Lev an urgent edge they clearly hoped his film would exonerate them, even as Bar-Lev himself began to have doubts.
In the end, Bar-Lev simply expanded his film's scope: He brought in New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman to address the perception that nonfigurative art is a cynical con, and what the implications could be when unschooled childish scribbles are deemed as accomplished as the works of adults whose paintings are consciously produced within a conceptual framework. But Bar-Lev also explores the freakish popular appeal of child prodigies, the family dynamics that come into play when a child's celebrity and earning capacity overshadows the adults', and the remarkably conflicted and contradictory admissions drawn from Brunelli about Marla's work. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh