‘New Film Stills’

Why Does the Art World Coddle James Franco?

The art world loves the star attention the actor brings so much so that it accepts his ‘art’ without much scrutiny. In his new exhibit, though, Franco goes a step too far.

Is James Franco really an artist? He must be, because he just opened a major show at New York’s blue chip Pace Gallery, which represents Chuck Close, Maya Lin, and a host of living and dead creative legends.

Yet many art world insiders consider actor/serial dilettante Franco’s work nothing more than a joke, though few will admit that for the record, and even then, elliptically. A paparazzi-magnet, Franco’s presence in myriad exhibitions reflects an insecure art world’s seemingly harmless infatuation with celebrity and hunger for validation. In exchange for photo ops with the likes of MoMA PS1 director Klaus Biesenbach—because who outside the art world even knows who that is?—Franco’s pratfalls are humored.

The mutually beneficial relationship began around 2010, when Franco, who played a performance artist in a small role on General Hospital, arranged for both the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art and its then-director, Jeffrey Deitch, to make cameos on the soap. Though Franco had made some artworks in the late 2000s, he wasn’t embraced by the likes of Alanna Heiss, the founder and former director of P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, until the summer of 2010, when she curated Franco’s first solo show in New York. There was also a stint in a “performance art music-based duo” with legit artist Kalup Linzy, a turn in a group pop-up show called “Rebel,” in collaboration with LA MOCA, in which Franco presented what art critic Hunter Drohojowska-Philp called a “chaotic deconstruction” of the film Rebel Without a Cause, a video called “My Own Private River” in collaboration with filmmaker Gus van Sant, a turn in highly legit artist Isaac Julien’s lavish film “Playtime,” and a so-called gallery exhibition last summer, curated by the genuinely talented Turner Prize-winning artist Douglas Gordon.

Franco’s flirtation with the museum and gallery system seemed okay, even funny, in an eye-rolling kind of way. As for write-ups of these efforts, you’ll only find Q and As and features; no art critic has taken him seriously enough to actually write about his work.

But Franco’s latest endeavor, on view at New York’s Pace Gallery through May 3, thumbs its nose so glaringly at the art world, and from a stance of such entitlement, that all the artists, curators, and dealers that have been photographed alongside him might want to rethink their position.

For his Pace exhibition “New Film Stills,” Franco re-creates art world luminary Cindy Sherman’s iconic “Untitled Film Stills,” a series begun in 1977 that’s now recognized as one of the smartest, slyest, and most meaningful feminist critiques ever made. As Sherman herself starred in that series, so Franco stars–in drag–in his re-dos.

For “Untitled Film Stills,” Sherman dressed and posed like the clichéd images of women that she saw on film and TV. She put her ordinary self inside pictures that a movie studio might release: here was the starlet on vacation, in her kitchen, enjoying a cocktail. Over three years, Sherman enacted more and more types—there are 69 pictures in all—from the snappy career girl, a la Mary Tyler Moore, to the brawny housefrau. In each image, Sherman embodies a new role, with a wardrobe and makeup job to match every occasion. Sherman took the pictures herself using a shutter release cord that she didn’t bother to hide: it winked at the constructions behind popular imagery.

Franco sophomorically re-creates Sherman’s poses, some more faithfully than others, dressed in a kind of noncommittal drag. He dons kerchiefs and wigs, housedresses and lingerie, but his transformation stops there. His signature scruff—the goatee, the hairy legs—remains front and center, reminding us that he’s a manly man who’s playing at womanhood. Like a frat-boy prank, the series looks as if Franco had a fun afternoon in New Orleans (where many of these pictures were shot).

In a gallery press release, Franco claims he’s criticizing the celebrity-making machine from the inside, just as Sherman critiqued it from the outside. “These photos allow me to take a step to the side, look back, and refashion the work I do in Hollywood,” he says. But by playing for a laugh–because that’s what Franco gets when he’s in drag–he both undermines Sherman’s efforts and obfuscates the fact that he is making no point at all. What we’re left with is pictures of James Franco, a powerful white guy having a good time being famous.

The blog Gallerist NY recently asked Sherman what she thought of Franco’s efforts. “I was flattered,” Sherman is reported to have said. “I don’t know that I can say it’s art, but I think it’s weirder that Pace would show them than that he would make them.”

It is really weird that Pace would show them. And it just might tell us how far adrift that gallery—and a good chunk of the art world—really is.