Remember four-year-old Marla Olmstead, subject of the 2007 film My Kid Could Do That, whose paintings were going for $300,000? Or Aelita Andre, the seven-year-old whose acrylic paintings sold for as much as $50,000? How about Akiane Kramarik, who said her visions drove her to paint, landing her on the Oprah Winfrey Show at age 10? Every time, questions arise: Did the kid really do that? Are the parents exploiting their children? Do paintings by a kid not yet in high school simply pull back the veil, revealing abstract art as nothing more than a giant scam?
Enter Vietnam’s Xeo Chu, now 11, who first picked up a brush at just four years old and is today opening his first New York solo show. In “Big World, Little Eyes,” at George Bergès Gallery in SoHo, you’ll find colorful abstractions and landscapes measuring as much as 15 feet wide and tagged at upwards of $150,000, a price that would make even a successful midcareer artist sit up and take notice. Bergès discovered the artist, he told Artnet News, through clients in Singapore and Vietnam, where Xeo has had shows before.
To Bergès, this is not so much a commercial endeavor as it is a metaphysical one.
“To me it was very interesting to work with an artist who’s before puberty, because it challenged my notions about art and how life experience has to go into it,” he said in a phone interview. “I’m very spiritual, so the idea of reincarnation or what Jung called the collective unconscious really resonates, and you can see it more purely in a child. If there is depth and complexity in a piece of work from someone who has very limited life experience, it gives you a glimpse of the universal unconscious that we all have and can tap into.”
There is a special responsibility, he acknowledged, in working with someone so young. “Although we can be excited about everything that’s going on, and we can encourage him, we should also shelter him from the press,” he said. “At the end of the day he’s a child, and I don’t lose sight of that. It’s tough. It’s a tightrope.”
Bergès planned the show, open only through January 2, to take place during the holidays.
“It’s a special time of the year, and I wanted kids to see that they’re important and can play a role in the discourse of art,” he says. “My eight-year-old daughter’s school is going.”
All the same, it’s still a business proposition too, and Bergès said he’d just sold two paintings for $80,000 each.
And if you’re skeptical about whether the child actually created them, well, there is video evidence.
In a phone interview, Xeo talked about what he’s going to do with the money, how he approached the biggest painting he’s ever created, and how his work has evolved over his seven-year career.
How do you feel on the occasion of your first New York solo? Excited? Nervous?
It’s kind of in the middle.
How does it feel to have your paintings go for such high prices?
It’s mostly for charity. I donate it for children my age, because I feel like, I have school and my mom and a lot of care and support, but other kids don’t, so I want to help them. The money goes to Heartbeat Vietnam.
What’s it like when you’re in the studio?
I feel lonely sometimes so I listen to music and sometimes my mom helps me. But I also have a teacher who is an artist, so he shares his experience with me. He lets me choose what I want to draw and what colors to use. Sometimes he makes suggestions. Sometimes we go outside to paint, too.
How has your art changed over the seven years you’ve been working?
When I started, I painted what I saw. In my house I saw flowers, so I would paint that. But now I travel more. Last year I went to Canada in autumn, so I painted that. I recently went to Hạ Long Bay, in Vietnam and it was really cool, really unique.
Have you seen anything in New York that you think you’ll paint?
So far, all I’ve seen is buildings. But maybe, if I see an interesting topic that’s surprising.
How do the abstract paintings arise?
It’s also from what I see. For example I went to Canada in autumn, so I saw sunlight through the trees. I tried to make that through an abstract painting.
What do your friends think of you being an artist?
I don’t really tell my friends, because I thought it would be weird to come up to them and tell them I’m an artist.
How does your mother work with you?
She supports me a lot. She helps me, and she also owns an art gallery.
What is your painting process like?
For example, the Hạ Long Bay painting that I did, I put water on the canvas to make an effect, to make it look better, and then I will use my brush. I will put paint on the canvas from the bottle to make leaves or flowers. Sometimes I paint trees. I make lines in different directions to make a tree, and then I just keep going.
Tell me more about how you made Hạ Long Bay, the 15-foot-long painting in the show.
I heard I was going to have an exhibition in New York, and it took me, like, three months to do it, because it was really big, It was the first time I’ve done something so big, but for this show I wanted to do something special. At first it was really hard, because I had to work differently. There’s mountains on the water, and caves, that was the inspiration. I kind of draw things out on a notebook so I know what I’m doing. It took a lot of time.
What other artists inspire you?
When I started I didn’t really look into lots of artists. I hope I can look at other artists in the future. Right now I’m just doing my own thing.
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