Renaissance Man

James Franco Gets Superficial

For his second New York solo show, the actor-turned-artist turns 'Three’s Company' into a drama and reads from Rob Lowe’s memoir. Blake Gopnik on why it’s Franco’s best performance yet.

08.11.11 7:51 PM ET

UPDATE: Alan Nierob, a spokesman for Rob Lowe, says the actor is not aware of any legal issues surrounding Franco's show, had discussed the project with the artist beforehand, and has no objections to Franco's videotaped reading of his best-selling memoir. "Rob could not have been more flattered," said Nierob, over the phone from Los Angeles. "Who wouldn't be flattered by the idea of someone reading their whole book out loud?"


Is James Franco’s art cursed? His new solo show, titled “High/Low, Rob Lowe,” launched Saturday night at an obscure New York gallery called Asia Song­ Society—and has barely been viewable since. Right after the opening, electrical problems sent the show into technical meltdown. (Fifty televisions and eight video projectors put strain on ancient wiring.) The power didn’t get sorted out until Wednesday evening, when I was lucky enough to spend a few hours with the work; the public got access again the next day at noon. And then by 3 p.m., after welcoming just a single visitor, the doors slammed shut again for "minor legal reasons," said gallery manager Maggie Bryan. A later statement explained that "there may be unresolved licensing agreements between James and those responsible for some of the original media that was reinterpreted for 'High/Low, Rob Lowe.'"

Two of Franco’s videos riff, not completely kindly, on the Lowe oeuvre, almost as though Franco were inoculating himself against sharing Lowe’s fate as a Hollywood hack. But perhaps Franco’s move misfired, inviting misfortune rather than warding it off. Let's hope the gods start smiling on him again, because this movie star's art deserves to be seen. The objects themselves have their flaws, but there’s some glorious acting on view.

Until now, the high point in Franco’s thespian career has clearly been his solo turn in 127 Hours, as a trapped hiker who cuts off his own arm with a penknife. It won him a nomination at this year’s Oscars. With “High/Low, Rob Lowe,” Franco may have surpassed even that: it shows the 33-year-old actor turning in an immaculate performance as a serious contemporary artist.

Franco himself isn’t in sight. After Saturday’s opening he went back to Detroit, where he’s filming a prequel to The Wizard of Oz. (His schedule there is so packed that he couldn’t fit in a call to talk about art.) But the show he left behind does the acting for him.

The gallery itself is the perfect set for this latest James Franco production. It occupies a scruffy storefront in a remote corner of Chinatown—a sure sign of underground cred—but also happens to be owned by the high-profile performance artist Terence Koh. Inside, Franco’s art looks just like contemporary art is supposed to. The windowed front room presents a bunch of self-referential, ironic found objects: a commemorative bottle of bourbon sporting Franco’s own face; a bobble-head of James Dean; covers of Soap Opera Digest from 2009, with headlines on Franco’s appearance in General Hospital. On the room’s back wall, a garish neon sign reads “Three’s Company: The Drama,” announcing the installation that’s on view through a curtain behind it: six video projections careen around a stifling space, riffing on the show in their title. Three of them present original episodes of the 1970s sitcom; another three screen grungy reenactments of the same episodes, performed by Franco and some friends. Of course, the dumb-blonde role of Chrissy goes to a shaggy guy in drag, according to the rules of today’s most with-it art. (Drag videos by Ryan Trecartin have deservedly been winning almost universal raves.)

On the staircase to the basement hang paintings by Franco’s friends and colleagues, checking off the “collaboration” box on the art world’s must-have list; a painting by an anonymous fan gives a nod to outsider art, too. At the foot of the stairs, 50 video monitors in a haphazard stack present almost-random footage shot by Franco as he rushes through life.

And at the basement’s far end sits a three-screen video projection, 50 hours long, with footage of Franco in a moving car, reading aloud from Lowe's new Hollywood memoir. At the last minute before the show opened, Franco, playing the untrammeled improviser, apparently scrawled the words “Road Trip” in paint on the screen. Twice.

If Hollywood’s very best designers set out to prop a movie about a cutting-edge contemporary artist, Franco’s exhibition is what they would come up with—and it would be more accurate than anything I’ve seen on film. (Most art movies get art making laughably wrong.) That leaves Franco’s show with surfaces that are spot on, and nothing more behind them than behind the flats on a soundstage. However “iconic” Three’s Company may be, it’s very hard to care a whole lot about it, even (or especially) with Franco’s gender-studies versions screening alongside. Franco may be fascinated by Rob Lowe—no doubt as a kind of cautionary version of himself—but not all of us are. Ditto for random footage of the view from Mount Franco.

This may be hard to believe, but what I’ve said so far ought to count as a compliment. The vast majority of artists—especially part-timers such as Franco, who may singlehandedly have launched the new category of “Sunday video artist”—don’t  manage even a surface simulacrum of engaged contemporary art. Even in art school, teachers have to struggle to get fully dedicated students to make work that reads as something for our time. Franco, the perpetual and ravenous learner, would get straight A’s from any of those teachers. His latest project has its surfaces so right, it could even win him the master’s degree he’s working toward now at the Rhode Island School of Design. (His first New York solo, last year at the nonprofit Clocktower Gallery, was closer to a senior-year mess, enthusiastic but stuffed with clichés.)

And there’s even a slim chance that what’s on view at Asia Song Society is working at a yet higher level. Could it be that Franco’s New York show is really all and only about Franco-the-actor-who-is-playing-an-artist? Franco has made such “art” once before, in a kind of caricature mode, when he stepped into episodes  of General Hospital as “Franco the Performance Artist”—episodes which the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art then billed as substantial performance art. This latest exhibition could be the sober, method-acting version of that project. The Chinatown exhibition, taken as a whole, may give us a frighteningly realistic, almost trompe l’oeil portrait of a famous actor—let’s call him “James Franco”—who can get away with peddling almost any kind of high culture, however superficial, to our celebrity-addled selves. In which case “High/Low, Rob Lowe” is as good, and deep, as any “real” art out there.    

"James Franco: High/Low, Rob Lowe" is at Asia Song Society, 45 Canal St., New York, through Aug. 28. Open Thursday through Sunday, 12 p.m. to 7 p.m.