A quick scan of the artists included in the current show at Cal State L.A.’s
Luckman Gallery is promising. Established art stars like Ed Ruscha, Carolee Schneemann,
Jim Shaw, Polly Apfelbaum, David Reed and Marlene Dumas (who recently made waves
by moving from semi-obscurity to setting the auction record for female artists)
are exhibited side by side with local faves like Tim Ebner, Russell Crotty and
Chris Finley, plus a sizable Philadelphia contingent, including Patricia Cronin,
Randall Sellers and Judith Schaechter. Then there are a few idiosyncratic curve
balls, like autistic Einstein on the Beach librettist
Christopher Knowles, comix icon Charles Burns and retired performance artist Tehching
Hsieh, who once had himself tied to Linda “Chicken Woman” Montana for a full year.

Given such inclusiveness, the show itself is remarkably consistent. Most of the work is smaller than sketchbook size, figurative or otherwise representational, and made with traditional media, primarily ink and pencil on paper. And there’s something a little odd about some of the work. Certainly Dani Tull’s curious fake publicity headshot of a teen girl on the phone, Dorothy Cross’ neo-imagist rendering of the three witches from Macbeth, or Adam Ross’ intricate aerial maps of cities would not be out of place in any contemporary gallery. But the first piece you encounter by Marnie Weber gives pause: a vintage mimeographed art history quiz sheet asks, “If Van Gogh had been born 30 years sooner, how do you think he would have painted? What do you think he would have painted? Give reasons for your opinions.” In apparent response to this query, Weber has painted a stripped-down red and purple expressionistic happy face. Perhaps the result of a little known side-oeuvre of interrogative pedagogical theoretical work for the animistic photo collagist? Or maybe its unfamiliarity is due to the fact that Weber was 3 at the time the painting was executed.

In fact all of the work in the show — titled “Very Early Pictures” — was produced before any of these professional artists had reached the age of consent, and therefore before they were professional artists (the exception being Knowles, who penned lyrics for the epic Glass/Wilson opera at age 14). “There’s something about the status of this work that’s interesting because it’s really not ‘art,’ ” says Philly-based curator Richard Torchia as we survey the almost-installed exhibit. “I’m saying that with quotations around it — it is art because all children are artists, right? But in order to treat it the way we would treat professional work, the whole condition of the environment here has to be modified. I wanted to avoid being overly didactic in terms of comparing adult work of people like Ed Ruscha or Jim Shaw, so there’s no contemporary work included. How can you compare?

“All of this work is so random to begin with. For example, we have the one piece that Ed Ruscha managed to keep [since] he was 7 or 8 years old, so there’s no selection process. With someone like Dani Tull, whose grandmother did a lot of research about creativity and the development of cognition, all the work that he did from his childhood up to now has been preserved by his family. So this is almost about the parents as archivists or curators.”

The exhibit is arranged by the age at which each work was created, with the progeny
of the more dedicated archivists popping up at regular intervals. This gives the
show a pedagogical feel — like a visual essay on the developmental stages in artistic
evolution, both in the Piaget-style terms of correspondences between emergent
psychological structures and picture-making skills and in more art-world-related
senses. For example:? Where and how does the urge for academically acceptable
rendering overwhelm the deep psychological engagement and assured formal spontaneity
that typify early childhood visual art? How is it that some people are able to
retain or recover the latter? And is there any correlation whatsoever between
that group of people and the segment of the population who become art-world professionals?
Can you tell just by looking at a 4-year-old’s drawing that he’s going to be a
genius? A 10-year-old’s? A 17-year-old’s?

Hoeber’s Wedding
With a Crying Bride and
(1979, age 5)

Many of the “Very Early Pictures” that could pass for contemporary gallery
fare benefit significantly from the art world’s seemingly bottomless obsession
with adolescence. But this isn’t entirely unprecedented. Art historian Jonathan
Fineberg has traced many of the breakthroughs in “my kid could do that” Modernism
directly to artists’ fascination with children’s art. “I wanted to see if there
was anything to the often-remarked-upon resemblance that we normally dismiss,”
said Fineberg to a midsize audience at Luckman the Thursday before the opening.
“To my surprise, I discovered that artists such as Kandinsky, Klee, Picasso, Miró
and Dubuffet — to name just a few — were very interested in children’s drawings
and mined them for ideas.”

In his insightful and copiously illustrated book, The Innocent Eye: Children’s Art and the Modern Artist, Fineberg outlines the history of children’s art in the context of art history, arguing convincingly for the influence of the prepubescent sensibility on artists from Russian avant-gardist Mikhail Larionov to Jean-Michel Basquiat and David Hockney. “Simple things take on a vividness in child art that catches us by surprise,” continued Fineberg. “For the great modern artists, the children’s drawings seem to have added vibrancy to their explorations of whatever was most fundamental in their aesthetic projects.”

But is this anything more than a search for plunder-ready sources of formal novelty? Fineberg believes so: “In 1863, Baudelaire famously wrote that ‘genius is nothing more nor less than childhood regained at will.’ Underlying this formulation is the perception that the recovery of childhood offers a passage to fundamental knowledge about the present state of existence, and nowhere is this perception more powerful than in the realm of the visual. The artist creates a form with which to articulate that experience for which neither viewer nor artist have, until that moment, had a vocabulary. The same may be said of a child’s drawing.”

Curiously, many of the kids’? works collected and adapted by artists over the
last hundred years are considerably more powerful than most of the works in “Very
Early Pictures.” A result of the lengthier filtering process, no doubt, but one
can’t help wondering whether artists are better at spotting gifted child artists
than they were at being them. At some points you start wondering if there’s any
connection at all. Then you come across something like Jeffrey Vallance’s incredibly
detailed Addams Family House? sculpture, which he built at
age 10 in 1965. He then sent a photograph of the model to cartoonist Charles Addams,
who responded. Anyone familiar with Vallance’s prankish letter projects, where
he solicited “Art in Government” drawings from Strom Thurmond and Barry Goldwater
or traded neckties with Anwar Sadat (not to mention his more ambitious boundary
erasures involving the King of Tonga or the Liberace Museum), must recognize this
as a seminal work in the artist’s career. In fact, there’s probably as much good
art in this show as there would be in a show of contemporary works by the same
group of artists.

In spite of all the isues raised, the bottom line is that there’s probably as
much good art in this show as there would be in a show of contemporary works by
the same group of artists. Most of these questions provoked by “Very Early Pictures”
— rather than being contained in some sort of nostalgic bubble — ultimately seem
to address our prejudices, our criteria for valuing works of art, and the structure
and meaning of the art world — pretty radical stuff. Does it matter whether any
of this was intentional on the part of the young artistes? I don’t know, but given
the way some of them turned out, I wouldn’t put it past them.

VERY EARLY PICTURES | Luckman Gallery, Cal State L.A., 5151 State University Drive, Los Angeles | Through July 23

LA Weekly