What Can't He Do?
James Franco, movie star and America's best-known MFA student, has opened his first solo art show. Curated by P.S. 1 and Art International Radio founder Alanna Heiss, The Dangerous Book Four Boys at Clocktower Gallery features Franco's short films, photographs, drawings and sculpture. It's on view through September.
The title is a play on Conn and Hal Iggulden's guide to mischief, The Dangerous Book For Boys, a gift to Franco from a friend. Scrawled-on pages of the book, framed in plexiglass, constitute the drawing portion of the show. As a whole, the show can be seen as a grown-up interpretation of boyhood interests: Violence and sight gags are key, with a strain of sexual confusion. In one film, an anonymous young man smashes apart a plywood house; another film, the self-explanatory Dicknose in Paris, stars Franco with a rubber penis tied to his face. A window at the gallery entrance reveals a Little Tikes log cabin scored with bullet holes.
The works in the individual mediums are part of a circuit of overlapping processes, Franco explained Tuesday afternoon, as the gallery was finishing the installation. The neon crossing signs, toys and other seemingly unrelated objects that form an assemblage sculpture appear in multiple films. Photographs, also on exhibit, documented the filmmaking. Recreations of plywood structures used in the films—simple houses, a rocket ship—serve as sculptures as well as viewing houses.
"The detritus of the movies became sculptures in a way, in a way they kind of become proof of the movies," said Franco. "After you see the movies those structures resonate with all of the events of the movies. They kind of accumulate a certain vibration or just more significance in your head because of what's happened in the film ... [And] by having the films near them, the films become more palpable in a way."
The Dangerous Book Four Boys is divided among multiple rooms, though curator Heiss said the intent was to create an organic environment, a "viewing lab." The source-material assemblage piece and a loop of two films (Dicknose and Masculinity & Me) take up one of the two smaller rooms, near the front of the gallery. The other is dedicated to a collaboration between Franco and the artist-director Carter. Eight-millimeter film of a mustachioed, motorcycle-riding Franco taken from the duo's VMAN magazine shoot (Double-Third Portrait, 2009) is projected on a sheet, and Polaroid images from the same shoot stud the adjacent walls. The films that involve the wooden shelters, and the physical structures themselves, occupy the main gallery space.
Early in the interview, Franco and I are sitting in one of the plywood houses, watching the tail-end of an imagined romance between Star Trek's Captain Kirk and Spock (Kirk Slash Spock), which segues into more abstract nature scenes and a sequel to Dicknose in Paris. We're seated in such a way that I only see Franco in profile, as he's watching the screen straight ahead on which his image occasionally appears. So what is it like to be James Franco, watching oneself in a visual art piece compared with, say, Eat Pray Love?
"It's more personal in a way," Franco said. "There's a lot of silliness to a lot of them but it's something that I put together from the beginning and so it feels much closer ... [With commercial film] there's something of me in that performance—you're always revealing something in any performance. But those projects usually don't originate with me."
Certainly, there's some skepticism about Franco as a serious contemporary artist as there was—still is—about Franco as a writer and academic. "So what you do you think," he joked at one point, "Art In America is like, ‘James Franco the actor is doing an art show, let's go destroy it'?"
And the reasons for skepticism? First: is it possible to be good or simply passable at this many creative pursuits? Franco lists writing, acting, video, performance art, and painting among his activities. Second, and we're part of it: Franco does a lot of publicity. His name opens doors and guarantees some media and art community attention. Of course, his "name" and overlapping mass and popular artforms are part of the project, which is both proof of his skills, and a convenient catch-all. But how often is someone's first real art show a solo show curated a celebrity curator, and running concurrent with a museum performance piece at an art space with a high profile new director? One notice that the artist is "James Franco," movie star, is that a sign at the entrance to the gallery notes that the show was made possible with support from Gucci. Franco is the face of the brand's men's fragrance
But Heiss is his champion. "I did this show with this artist because this is my first big show I've done since leaving PS1," said Heiss, who retired from the art center in 2008. "I wanted to do an artist who's a young artist, rather than a great artist from the Clocktower's past ... In thinking hard about who could be an important young artist, but who is really at the very beginning, Franco came up again, and again, and again as a possibility." She notes his enthusiasm for contemporary art and his background in film and art studies. His career as an actor is also a boon, she said, rather than a distraction. "He's not just casually making fun of film, he can do anything in film," Heiss said. "He's approaching our area, contemporary art, with a dignity which is to me unique so far."
Franco seems aware of what the critical art community may think of his latest foray. But he has some formidable supporters, counting Heiss and Jeffrey Deitch, formerly of New York zeitgeist meter Deitch Projects and now the director of the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles. The opening of The Dangerous Book For Boys this week coincides with SOAP at MOCA: James Franco on General Hospital, a continuation of Franco's performance art project that involves him playing a self-described "crazy artist" named Franco on the soap opera. Franco said he and Deitch had discussed bringing the sets and actors of General Hospital to an art space, even before Deitch left New York. The taping at MOCA also features video and performance artist Kalup Linzy.
CLOCKTOWER GALLERY IS LOCATED AT 108 LEONARD STREET, NEW YORK.