You're kidding me, right? 

Modern art, and the response to it, provides muse for new film

Is that art?

For many Americans who feel alienated and intimidated by contemporary and especially abstract art, the answer probably would be "no."

What if the painting was made by a 4-year-old?

Even abstract art – which many would oppose in theory – suddenly becomes compelling when done by a child, according to the gallery owners, collectors and journalists interviewed in the new documentary My Kid Could Paint That, released last week in Atlanta.

In the movie, director Amir Bar-Lev follows the rise and fall of the 4-year-old abstract painter Marla Olmstead. It is not until a "60 Minutes" exposé suggests Marla may have had help from her father in painting her impressively complex abstract works that her collectors and fans begin to turn tail.

Though the film is fixated on the idea of whether Marla is a prodigy or a fraud, some of the most interesting content for art audiences – in Atlanta and beyond – may be the light it sheds on the enormous antipathy the public often levels at modern art and artists.

My Kid Could Paint That engages with a notion that has dogged modern art since before Jackson Pollock's day: that contemporary art is a con game foisted upon the public by critics, academics and other charlatans. But the film also taps into more current sentiments felt by many art-world insiders: In the heady, money-ruled contemporary-art marketplace where the worth of artwork is wildly capricious, how are value and prestige determined? Many involved in the art business will see some of their own concerns exposed, as illustrated by the Hummer-driving collector whose interest in owning a "Marla" seems driven by getting the latest hot ticket.

Some of the most fascinating perspective in the film comes from New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman. Interviewed extensively in the film, Kimmelman speaks with amusement and eloquence to this idea some in the public feel, that contemporary art is itself an enormous fraud, a "put-on" foisted onto the public, the highbrow version of a midway carnival graft in which unsuspecting folk are separated from their paychecks by people who are hip and wise to the con.

"If a child can do it," Kimmelman says, "it pulls the veil off this con game."

But what My Kid Could Paint That or the people interviewed never address is the paradox of why they would purchase an abstract work to assert their dislike of abstract work.

Because if abstraction is merely a con game, the province of artists who can't "do" realism, then why do so many buyers line up for Marla's drips and swirls? Is it perhaps because buyers feel safe in rewarding the untutored, innate creativity of a child and feel deeply suspicious of trained, schooled, adult artists whose vocation still represents a great affront to working-culture America?

"Often when I tell someone I'm an artist, I get the old 'starving artist' comment and feel like they expect me to tell them what my other 'real' job is," says Grady Haugerud, whose abstract canvases are on view through Dec. 31 at the Puritan Mill Gallery in the King Plow Arts District.

"Some people can dismiss abstract works because they seem thrown together, messy, meaningless and most of all easy to make," Haugerud says. "In abstract art, the viewer has to engage in their imagination and inner vision to be receptive to this form of art."

Eric Mack, an Atlanta painter who has had his work exhibited at Fay Gold Gallery and currently in a group show at the new Cousins Properties Terminus building in Buckhead, has occasionally grappled with the difficulty some viewers have with abstract work.

That possibly alienating effect compelled Mack to actually alter his work for a six-week exhibition of 15 large paintings beginning Dec. 17 at the Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport's Atrium Gallery. Mack added more recognizable anatomical references to his usual graphic lines and color blocks.

"With abstraction," Mack says, "sometimes a little bit more imagination and energy is needed. A lot of times you don't really know if people are interested in giving that much energy.

"So especially in a public environment," he continues, "I wanted to try and incorporate imagery the public can connect with because you want to engage."

The truth is, abstract expressionism most famously typified by the drips and splatters of Pollock is not only about the virtuosity of individual artists and the idea that gesture, color and composition can convey ideas in themselves. It is also a history of innovation; the fact that Pollock came up with the splatter technique in the first place in response to the art that came before him. As Kimmelman notes of modern art, its meaning resides as much outside the frame as within it.

The reason Marla's works were initially beloved was because they dragged abstraction down from its ivory tower. They represented an unthreatening, comforting purity: abstraction without theory or training or any of its more alienating principles.

And so, if anything, the film proves that Americans will appreciate abstraction if they allow their defenses to drop.

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