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The Franco Regime
Sholem Krishtalka: Unlike harmless Macaulay Culkin, the ubiquitous actor's artistic gestures are "crass cynicism"

James Franco playing Cindy Sherman

So Macaulay Culkin and James Franco are now visual artists. Well, perhaps that’s unfair; Macaulay Culkin and James Franco are now making visual art.

Sigh.

There have been other actor-artists. Dennis Hopper springs easily to mind. He dabbled in painting but was best known in the art world as a photographer, and while I’m not deeply familiar with his images, I’ve seen enough of them to say that he was a pretty decent one. He had been exhibiting more or less regularly since the late ’60s; by the ’90s, he had been showing and producing enough to be rewarded with a number of retrospectives.

To the best of my knowledge, Dennis Hopper never announced his art career via his “people” (in point of fact, he started taking photographs when his acting career was stuttering, in the mid-’60s). Both James Franco and Macaulay Culkin have announced rather grandly that they are Making Art. And while I’m not about to fault anyone for their cross-promotional hubris (on the contrary, I wish I had a fraction of that hubris), there’s something about these pronouncements that sets my teeth on edge, curls my lip, wrinkles my nose, gets my eyes rolling and furrows my brow. Basically, I’m getting a full facial workout.

Culkin is now a painter. He, along with his two pals, Adam Green and Toby Goodshank (of the band the Moldy Peaches) go by the name 3MB (Three Men and a Baby) and together, they make the silliest doodles I’ve ever seen in my adult life. They have a show coming up at Le Poisson Rouge, a music and party venue in Manhattan.

Franco is adding “photographer” to his CV. For his latest outing, he is taking part in a group show at the Costume National clothing store, which is briefly being converted to a gallery space. He is showing his “remake” of the excised footage from William Friedkin’s Cruising, as well as his photography project, a shot-by-shot remake of Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills, starring himself.

Culkin’s work doesn’t have the same aesthetic seriousness as Franco’s, and ultimately, I have much more sympathy for the former. To be sure, the YouTube video publicizing 3MB’s show reaches some forehead-slapping heights of vacuity, notably when Green tries out some half-baked cockamamie artspeak and says that this project is inspired by a “lethargic attitude toward nostalgia and leisure in general.” This is classic bullshit of the highest order, and stinks mightily of an old art-school game that I used to play: when at a loss for an artist statement, pick a theory text and choose three words at random.

I tip my hat to anyone who can get through that nonsensical goulash of a line without laughing, and Green nails it with total dedication. What’s more (and what’s more important), it all seems pretty innocent; three guys with time and money (one of them with considerably more money than the rest) who seem like they’re having fun. These are inane paintings, but then again, no matter how many times these boys fling about words like “concept” or “postmodern” (ha!) I don’t think they were ever meant to be anything else. Who wants to take someone to task for having fun, and supporting art supply stores in the process?

Franco, on the other hand, has been busily trying to convince us all that he’s an underground genius for years now, and this latest stab at critical relevancy emerges from a toxic haze of entitlement, cynicism and gall. Let’s have a gander at his statement, shall we?

“Cindy Sherman’s groundbreaking series Untitled Film Stills showed us how we look at ourselves in film. These were performances within multiple frames of significance. But Sherman was an artist looking at the film industry from the outside. I have started on the inside. I earn my living in the commercial film business. This new series of film stills puts one more frame around the dialogue Sherman introduced.”

For someone who’s been through the graduate schools of Columbia, NYU and Brooklyn College (simultaneously, I might add), who has an MFA from Columbia and who is currently a PhD student at Yale, he shows a remarkable ability to miss the point. Sherman wasn’t “looking at the film industry”; she was looking at popular constructions of femininity. But let’s leave aside, for the moment, the fact that he hasn’t bothered to do any research on one of the cornerstones of contemporary photography. The idea, not just that Cindy Sherman’s work needs “one more frame” around it, but that he’s the one to add it, is chutzpah beyond reason; the usage of a particularly iconic work to mask a complete and total lack of original thought.

But there’s something even nastier going on here. Franco has been flirting with a gay identity for a while now, in his choice of movie roles — in Milk, as Allen Ginsberg in Howl — and in his own films, like his biopic of Hart Crane or this new version of Cruising; this has endowed him with a kind of risk-taking, avant-garde cred (to say nothing of a perpetually salivating niche audience). So to drag himself up — to enact these women’s roles — keeps this flirtation going. Again, let’s (hesitantly) leave aside how, in its re-creation by a man (let alone a hunky celebrity), Franco elides Sherman’s own feminist performance and critique. His artsy drag steadily keeps him on the winning side of a highly marketable homoerotic “is-he-or-isn’t-he” game he’s been playing. So more than just impudent mimicry, or unwitting feminist erasure, this is crass cynicism: a tool to satisfy the salivators and keep the Franco brand on the cutting edge.

I’ll take lethargic attitudes towards nostalgia and leisure over cynical pretension any day of the week.

______

Sholem Krishtalka is the Toronto Standard’s art critic.

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