James Franco reading in an armchair
James Franco is everywhere, doing everything, all the time. He is an actor, writer, musician, English Literature student, teacher, director and world war agitator. Now, like everyone else in Hollywood, he is an artist, but one who exposes the heartbreaking sycophancy and emptiness of the artworld.
Franco’s latest exhibition, ‘Fat Squirrel‘ at Siegfried Contemporary, presents paintings and collages depicting a surprising combination of overweight animals and some narcissistic self-portraits. Before that, there was ‘New Film Stills’ (Pace New York, 2014), in which he used his own pretty face to rework Cindy Sherman’s celebrated Film Stills; and ‘Psycho Nacirema’ with Douglas Gordon (Pace London, 2013), which was a baffling installation that looked like a high school stage set.
There is something captivating about Franco’s art. Walking around ‘Psycho Nacirema’, you had that same awkward feeling of immersion and repulsion as you do for his character in Spring Breakers – the delirious push-pull of seduction. But there is also something desperate about the slapdash rendition of the Bates Motel, the lazy Sherman remake and now the puerile comedy of fat animals.
Franco is entrancing on screen: whether he sucking off a shotgun and screaming ‘look at my shit’ in Spring Breakers or playing the apocalypse party host as a goofy, criminally sexy version of himself in This is the End or enchanting the kids in Oz the Great and Powerful, he exudes the kind of magnetism that Hollywood dreams of but rarely gets. And he is a decent writer: Bungalow 89 is about Franco staying in a hotel on Sunset Boulevard, revealing Hollywood gossip (about River Phoenix’s dick, with some implied sexual psycho-drama about being in love with Gus van Sant even though he treats him like a father figure). Central to the plot is Franco’s refusal to fuck Lindsey Lohan, instead he reads her JD Salinger stories which uncomfortably mirror her disastrous relationship with her own mother. It is a sick, compelling tale of breathtaking arrogance, confused sexual energy and the sheer boredom of super-stardom in the manner of Bret Easton Ellis, aptly illustrated by Richard Phillips.
James Franco, I’m Proud of You, 2014
Franco is able to do this with such finesse because he truly understands Hollywood as a beastly organism that feeds off his looks, talent and press attention, perpetuating both the Franco myth and the Hollywood dream where stars make money and money makes stars. Franco is at the centre of Empire – the complicity of everyone in the entertainment industry in upholding the illusion of celebrity. He is a movie star in the old-school mould, embodying Hollywood effortlessly as if in some Heideggarian creation myth he had emerged from the very rocks of the Hills and been thrown into the Canyons to find the way into the limelight of his destiny.
Art, then, is one of the areas in which Franco chooses to spend his hard-earned commercial cache. His latest exhibition is grippingly self-indulgent: portraits of himself as James Dean suggesting that he is equal to or greater than him; portly deer engaged in a threesome like some cute perversion of a Disney classic; obese squirrels, dogs and horses that seem snatched from Buzfeed; and, oh look, a portrait of Gus van Sant looking rugged and strong. And no, he didn’t paint them himself; he got a ‘pet painter’ to do them for him, creating kitsch, watery illustrations on which he scrawled the titles in the same manic script he used on the walls of his Bates Motel. It’s not about fat animals or film stars at all; it’s all about Franco being able to get away with it because he’s hot and famous.
But for all that, it’s not as bad as Miley Cyrus or Snoop Dogg. Unlike his celebrity contemporaries who are trying to break into the artworld, Franco knows what he is doing: he has a conscious, educated sense of art history and theory that, as Arthur Danto says, entails that he is making art within the institutional parameters of a discourse. The Sherman, Hitchcock and Gordon shtick might be utterly banal but it qualifies his work as art in a way that Cyrus’ dumb sculptures and Snoop’s horrible paintings never could be. Granted, he is not making very good art, but for once that is not the point.
Franco doesn’t need to make good art because he doing something infinitely more important. He is deliciously post-Empire: he is tearing the guts out of the establishment from the inside, saying a big fuck-you to the artworld’s love of celebrity as an easy route to another million-dollar sell-out. And he is doing this with self-awareness, since he knows he is making legitimate, historically and theoretically entrenched art whose actual quality pales in comparison to its basic legitimacy. The commercial artworld doesn’t care if the work is good so much as it cares if it is genuine, so Franco’s coup succeeds in virtue of the fact that it is indistinguishable from the stuff that slavishly toes the Empire line.
Aside from successfully selling bad art to rich people, Franco is using his status and art to expose a chasm in the heart of the artworld, which is normally glossed over by the illusion that famous artists are artists before they are celebrities. The trick is that a megagallery like Pace will lap this up as if it starved of milk and honey; the fact that these massive commercial galleries will do anything – even exhibit James Franco – to get their hands on the coolest cultural capital reveals their profound disrespect – even contempt – for the cultural concept of art. Anyone who sincerely cares about art as a cultural product that edifies the human spirit would draw the line somewhere; and someone who represents the estates of Rothko, Picasso, de Kooning and Judd would surely draw the line long before a good looking, self-assured media whore like Franco who happens to be a fantastically talented actor.
The problem, then, is not with Franco or his art – like the rest of us, he is just a dude with some intelligence and talent who is trying to pass the time before death – but the problem falls squarely on the shoulders an artworld that cannot see its emptiness being exposed. If you scratch the surface of the artworld Empire, underneath you find a market so wanton that it will betray culture for glory. Franco, like Nietzsche philosophising with a hammer, is touching art with a hammer as with a tuning fork to hear the hollow sound of bloated entrails.
Words: Daniel Barnes
Fat Squirrel is at Siegfried Contemporary, London, until 20th December.
James Franco, Fat Squirrel, 2014