Have you heard of the child art prodigy, Aelita Andre? I just heard of her today from a short news clip. Apparently she’s quite famous, has had a one person show in New York City, and sold one work for $50,000. Before I saw the paintings of the 7 year old (who has been in the international spotlight since she was 4), I thought they were going to be crude, and the beauty would be in the eye of the believer. What surprised me, once I saw a few, was that the child had a very good eye for selecting and combining color, and her style didn’t look like precocious child’s art, but rather like rather good, and highly slick (if craftsy) art by an adult familiar with the history of abstract painting, as well as the techniques and tools of the trade. Is she the art wunderkind of an era, or is the art world just rationally untethered and gullible?The artist who produced the image above has obviously studied Jackson Pollock, because her painting looks like a section of a Pollock painting (see below).
I stop and wonder if her painting would even be possible without Jackson Pollock. While “Autumn Rain” vividly shows the child artist’s skills, it also challenges the grandiosity of Modernist masterworks we’ve admired for decades, and which sell for tens of millions of dollars. Or so it would seem at first. Someone had to be an admirer of the art of Pollock for “Autumn Rain” to exist, and ultimately what we are seeing is that person’s handiwork. But that person is not the seven year old, Aelita Andre.
It didn’t take much research to crack this case. According to a Wikipedia article:
Aelita Andre was born to Australian father Michael Andre and Russian mother Nikka Kalashnikova. As a baby, she often watched her parents, both artists themselves, work on canvases on the floor.
This is extremely telling. I tried to find out what the parent’s artwork looked like, but Google searches turned up nothing. My guess is that it looks a lot like Aelita’s. I’m not saying that the parents are painting her canvases themselves – there are videos of Aelita splashing on paint and even priming the background of the canvases with color – but that the parents set up the parameters in which the child operates, and they taught her how to make drip/splash paintings. Let me put it this way: the parents have a formula, or make a template, in which the child can hardly go wrong.
There’s a big difference between a child finding some house paint and butcher paper and spontaneously making Pollock-esque paintings, and a child being given a canvas on the floor and the ideal paints and tools, by her parents, to work with in a tradition with which they are intimately familiar. Similar things have been done with chimpanzees.Above you see one work by Aelita and one by Congo the Chimp. They both benefit from being painted on a black surface. It’s all about setting up the parameters so that whatever the child or chimp will do will look good. If a chimp can do the one on the right, does a seven year old girl need to be a prodigy to do the one on the left? Probably not. She just needs to have a little better fine motor control than a chimp. And I do think the parents are likely very good teachers, and could cultivate other children to use the same technique. Further, if one could see them purchasing the materials, giving her guidance, and instructing her (probably according to their own personal experience as abstract painters on canvases on the floor), the mystique would vanish, and it would most likely be kinda’ boring.
The more I look at Aelita’s paintings the more they look like the expertly packaged and slick craft of art-savvy adults.
The painting above is constructed of five, five foot tall custom ordered canvases, and is over ten feet wide. That part had to be the parent’s plan, as did the forethought to prime the canvases. What’s left over that the child did is not as spectacular as the pre-packaging. What we see are various splashes and splatters, all in accordance with an adult’s carefully manipulated framework.
Below is the same painting as above, but I’ve cut and repositioned the panels to show that it doesn’t really make a difference where they go, or which way the paint was flung, and there’s a hell of a lot of leeway for mistakes. The “container” that the parents set up, works probably with whatever the child slops on top of it.
The success of the resulting canvases is due to the initial preparation, or set up, done by the parents, for the child to work within. My guess is the parents carefully choose the color palette as well. What is left for the child to do is the more random component required to complete the preconceived work. The parents might be able to do it themselves, especially after too much to drink, blindfolding themselves, or spinning around until they are dizzy before slinging the pigment. Specificity is not required: a looseness and spontaneity is.
It may be that the child has a good eye, but I doubt that there aren’t thousands of other children in any large city that could do the same under the same truly exceptional conditions, just like many chimpanzees, given the right brushes, colors, and tutelage, could crank out art that looks like the Abstract Expressionist paintings their trainer is probably unintentionally guiding them to mimic.
This also reminds me of Damien Hirst training kids to make his spin paintings at an event he hosted for a charity. Each of these children becomes an instant child art prodigy once everything is set up for them to add the loose, unpremeditated part, which has already been meticulously planned for.
This story is deja vu if you know about another art prodigy of about ten years ago, one Marla Olmstead. She was also considered an Abstract Artist childhood phenomenon, until her parents agreed to allow a CBS film crew to set up a hidden camera in her home to document her painting process over the span of a month. After reviewing the footage, a child psychologist observed, “I saw no evidence that she was a child prodigy in painting. I saw a normal, charming, adorable child painting the way preschool children paint, except that she had a coach who kept her going.”
At the end of the coffee break (it didn’t take me a whole day, or even ten minutes to figure this out), the art being sold as that of a child art prodigy is actually the vision of one or both of her parents, and merely executed by the child. At most the work could be called a collaboration in which the child played a minor role, which could be performed as well by other children with a bit of training. In a word, it’s a “gimmick”.
And there’s another big reason people are being chumped: they don’t understand that a splatter painting made in 2014 isn’t as innovative as Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings starting more than 60 years ago. Without realizing the role of the Neo Abstract Expressionist parents, who painted on the floor, they assume the child made the same imaginatory leap as the pioneer Abstract Expressionists of mid last century, and further credit her with intuitively understanding all art which preceded that stage, before she triumphantly eclipsed it. In reality she has nothing to do with Pollock, and no real understanding of art history. She acts as a child imitating what her parents do and encourage, at a time in her life where she isn’t even capable of questioning their authority. This isn’t a mature, sophisticated mind, dealing with issues of how society visually interprets and represents reality, and developing that, as the Abstract Expressionists did: it’s a mind in the early stages of development playing at arts and crafts in accordance with an already hackneyed art paradigm advocated by her own parents.
Stop and think how convenient it is that she does drip paintings. So hard to tell if that splatter is genius or accident. If we really want to see if Aelita is the golden child of art, let’s have a look at her drawings. Most any other kid who is good at art at a young age will like to draw, so, we’d expect that someone with gifts to outshine Picasso would probably take up a pencil, pen, or crayon, and produce something not only remarkable, but unexpected. It simply can’t be that when her classmates are drawing, and showing off their creations, she shrugs it all off and doesn’t feel the need to test her hand. And yet there are no drawings to be seen. What if she’s given paper and some colored pastels, and produces exactly the same sort of drawing any other 7 year old would produce, and not even an especially good one? Then the game would be up.
Drawing would level the playing field and produce a more controlled experiment. The prodigy’s drawings would have to be exceptional relative to that of other kids for us to worship her as some sort of special being with capacities the rest of us mortals do not possess. Since most kids have access to drawing materials, Aelita would lose her advantage, even if her parents coached her.
The only normal art a child would do we’ve seen from her (that I’m aware of), is a tinfoil unicorn.
In a promotional film for Aelita’s art, she is seen making a sculpture of a unicorn out of aluminum foil. The segment is gorgeously filmed, with scarlet reflections making the otherwise drab foil look magical. But presentation aside – and the overwhelming likelihood that the parents coached her, such as by first making an armature to wrap the foil around – the resulting unicorn is unexceptional. That is, until filmed with dramatic spot lighting that highlights every fold and wrinkle and makes it look like it’s elaborately chiseled and cast in iron.
Even with the most polished packaging possible, the child’s sculpture is a UNICORN. It’s a whopping cliche, and a typical child’s art. Nothing to see here, folks, keep moving, don’t block the road. Imagine it as a drawing, and it is unexceptional for a child of her age.
For my tastes, the parents went too far with the “sound paintings”. Here violins are affixed to canvases, and once the splashing of paint is complete, the artist can run a bow across the painted violins to make “sound paintings”. It’s all too obviously “orchestrated”, and the greater the lengths the parents go to supersize their daughter’s art, the less it showcases whatever talent she might have in lieu of demonstrating their own marketing ingenuity. Stop and think about it: what seven year old has the wherewithal to buy new violins to place on canvas panels to paint over?
I see this as a conceptual art project by the parents, and staring their child, which is why it all looks like the work of middle-aged artists well familiar with the craftier side of the art world and art market. The pieces are only truly impressive because they are ostensibly done by a child. The enterprise in its entirety is heavily influenced by the model carved out by the Olmsteads, and starring Marla Olmstead. Who will be the next art prodigy? Parent’s, get to work on your art-style formulas, gimmicks, background stories, and marketing strategies.
Call me cynical, or just an animal lover, but I prefer chimp art to precocious little blonde girl art. Somebody give a chimp the chance to splash colors over, say, a triptych with electric guitars mounted on each panel. THAT I want to see! Note that the chimp below is not only a chimp, but she’s also only three, so a “chimpanzee prodigy”.
Aelita may be a wunderkind of art, if there is such a thing, but I for one won’t be able to tell until she does something far less scripted. I’m also not a believer in people being born genius artists, but rather see the great artists as normal people who did a lot of hard work. And some people like to believe there are those of us who are different and special, like royalty, but I think we are all special and nobody is really different. For now the best I can tell about Aelita is that she’s pretty damned good at splashing paint, having grown up doing so, whereas other kids her age are pretty damned good at drawing dinosaurs (a skill which she curiously does not exhibit). They just have different parents, grew up in different environments, and learned different visual art skills. I don’t expect any controlled experiments, but I predict that the parents’ teaching method and materials could be used to teach whole classrooms full of students to do art like Aelita, just as the kids below are creating similar pieces in a Country Fair in Japan.
The sad thing is that so many adults and critics seem to believe that her paintings are on par with the work of Pollock or de Kooning, when sometimes her creations are ghastly, and if they work it seems to be because of happy accidents inherent to the process itself. But, then again, the great achievements of the legends of high Modernist art, and those of the genius wunderkind, probably both deserve to be taken down a notch. But just to be clear, we are not comparing the masterpieces of Pollock or de Kooning to a child’s art, but rather to the sophisticated productions of two adult Abstract Expressionist painters (at least at one point, though now it seems one of them does photography and the other film), and one child. At first blush the family’s creations are more brightly colored and have a superficial appeal, but the more time you spend with their images the more they fade as compared to the real works of the Abstract Expressionists of mid last century.
The Andre family’s art productions are a “craft” version of Abstract Expressionism that relies on props, pretty colors, and cheeseball techniques to make their work seem like there’s more to it, when its just so much empty facade and decoration. It relies entirely for it’s impact on the misperception of the result with the unassisted imagination of a child. In reality, it is the equivalent of the music of the Partridge Family, but attributed only to Tracy Partridge, the little girl who plays tamborine and percussion.
Update: I just discovered a video of Aelita painting. It’s so painful to watch I can’t even finish it. She’s just slopping around paint mindlessly. I admit to thinking that you’d have to be kinda’ stupid to buy her art. And the paintings are gaudy to the point of being nauseating. See for yourself.
And there’s also this video of her painting when she was two, where it is also obvious she’s not particularly deliberately painting, because she can’t control the tubes of paint she is using directly, and finally ends up just rubbing her hands in the paint like any other 2 year old might. Embarrassing.