“She started painting at 1,” recounts Stuart Simpson, whose Ventura Boulevard gallery in Encino is hosting recent kindergarten grad Marla Olmstead’s West Coast solo debut. “She was motioning to her dad that she wanted to try and paint something — her dad’s a painter, but he doesn’t paint much — so he gave her a canvas and brush and said, ‘Go and play,’ and she started painting. Well, she kept doing it and they wound up with more paintings than they knew what to do with, so they gave some to their friend who owns a coffee shop in downtown Binghamton, New York, and he hung them on the wall. Then this couple comes in and asks if they’re for sale, and the owner says, ‘I don’t know — let me call the mother.’ And Laura said, ‘Sure — 250 bucks,’ thinking the guy would just laugh it off and go away. Then they called back and said, ‘Okay, the check is here.’ From $250 to Mosquito Bite, which is $25,000, she’s come a long way.”
Ah, the People love their wunderkinds. Ever since Mozart was first paraded out by his papa as a precocious (and highly lucrative) performing freak, the preternaturally gifted innocent of tender years has been a pop-culture archetype you can take to the bank. And it isn’t just the Bobby Fischers, Tiger Woodses and Michael Jacksons, but rafts of otherwise unnewsworthy math, physics and computer-science showoffs who are fodder for newspaper and magazine articles, morning-TV news profiles and talk-show slots — not to mention the scores of fictional characters from Doogie Howser, M.D. to Good Will Hunting invented to satisfy the public’s cravings for brilliant moppets.
What is it about these whiz kids that makes everyone so gaga? Partly, they fill a need to believe that humanity’s highest achievements are gifts, bestowed by a fundamentally miraculous universe on the unlikeliest of vessels as an object lesson in serendipity and faith. Of course the flipside to this is the idea of hitting the jackpot without having to do any of the grunt work — a particularly appealing scenario in American culture, whose ever-thinning veneer of Protestant work ethicism is only given credence by the minuscule demographics of Marxist-Leninists and honest Republicans.
Precociousness also taps into Americans’ latent skepticism toward entrenched authorities and their received criteria for excellence and moral authority in unrelated areas — if some tyke can circumvent the academic pecking order and finish her dissertation by age 11, why should I stop eating pork rinds just because Al Gore says so? The really interesting thing about little Marla or Alexandra Nechita or any of the other “pintsize Picassos” is that this skepticism is directed at the art world, an already convoluted territory patched together from put-ons, revolutionary paradigm shifts and emperor’s new clothes.
Perhaps that accounts for the peculiar vehemence of the backlash to Marla’s work over the last year on blogs that denounce her as a parentally fabricated fraud (utterly unfounded, as far as I can tell), and in the pseudo-investigative reportage of Charlie Rose on 60 Minutes II, which seems to have taken the wind out of her sales. Though there was a reported waiting list of 200 after her N.Y. debut, none of the canvases in the Encino show had sold the day after the opening. The crazy thing is, if the parents were faking the work, it would just make it that much more relevant to contemporary critical discourse.
What is a modern art prodigy anyway? Generally, a prodigy is someone who manages, before puberty, to achieve mastery in some activity usually considered the domain of adults and normally requiring many years of training. While the phenomenon is relatively simple to verify in such arenas as plasma physics and brain surgery, how does one determine if a child artist is successfully mimicking artistic traditions that, in the common parlance, “any child could do better”? Wouldn’t that mean the kid is retarded? Add to that the fact that the last century of art has seen a series of violent upheavals directed at conventional wisdom and institutional authority — often by circumventing rationality via the anarchistic play of childhood — and you have a postmodern conundrum more disconcerting than any of the mannered appropriations of Sherrie Levine or pre-exhausted slackerisms of Laura Owens.
To Simpson, the debate is moot. “I bought her work because it looked good,” he insists. “She could have been 6, 16 or 60 — it wouldn’t have made any difference: I liked the work. It was in a price range I could afford. So I bought it. It didn’t matter what the story was.” Be that as it may, the four paintings that Simpson and his wife, Marte, purchased from Marla’s first show were the first purely abstract works in their mostly Impressionist collection, and her work was the raison d’être for opening A StuArt Gallery a year and a half ago. While conceding the novelty of the artist’s age, Simpson is adamant about the intrinsic merit of the work. “From my point of view as a collector, it wouldn’t have mattered if it was a scam or a Pollock knockoff — I liked the piece.”
I like them too. Any number of the paintings in the show — Sick Teeth, Burning Blue Ball, Everyone’s House, Zane Dancing — are works I could hang in my home and stare at forever. I don’t know about the Pollock thing (or the Kandinsky, Miró or Klee things invoked by various commentators). If anyone, I’d cite Denmark’s Asger Jorn, founding member of COBRA and the Situationist International movements. But Marla’s work doesn’t need to be bolstered by art-historical references and romantic narratives of child genius. However they came into being, and whatever intentions (or lack thereof) might have been at play during their execution, the paintings are vibrant and sophisticated in their use of color, spatially intricate and compositionally complex, restlessly inventive and experimental, and marked by a vitality that is rare in any strata of the art world. In other words, what they have to say is said in the formal visual language of painting, and they are entirely persuasive, whether Charlie Rose’s expert witnesses can dig it or not.
What this implies about the art world, abstract painting or my own qualifications is a whole other can of worms. And since I get no comment from the notoriously reticent artist in a poolside audience — in spite of a proffered 99 Cent Only Store monkey-head FM radio (and the concomitant warning “Please use your manners or there will be a consequence”) — I turn to parents Mark and Laura. “I don’t believe prodigy is the right word,” says Dad. “She’s a little kid who likes to paint and seems to do very well at — like you said — keeping the colors separate. But I think that many, many kids are talented, and some of them never ever — whether it’s art, sports, music or literature — get the opportunity to do that. So I think that we’re fortunate and that’s where timing and luck comes in.”
“I’ve always been sort of in a state of disbelief about the whole thing, that she’s garnered so much attention and praise,” adds Mom. “I could never have predicted the things that have happened in these past two or three years, so there’s really no point in trying to guess what’s going to happen next. I just hope she turns into a happy, healthy person. I’m not going to worry about her as an artist. I believe that if she’s an artist, she’s an artist, and she’ll always find some passage of expression, whether it be painting or something else.”
But wait! Oblivious to the seriousness of the discussion, Marla decides to break her silence from the safety of her splashing preschool posse. “We turn into little fairies right now. We have to get out and then go back in. Okay, now we can get back in so the shark can’t see us.” Her paintings may or may not be works of genius, but as far as artist statements go, that ranks among the best.
MARLA OLMSTEAD: SIX | A StuArt Gallery, 17946 Ventura Blvd., Encino | Through August 20