534 West 25th St. between Tenth & Eleventh Aves.
Through Saturday, May 3, free, 19:00 am - 6:00 pm
Right up front, we need to admit that we consider ourselves to be Francophiles. We have full admiration and respect for the many guises worn by James Franco. From his days as Daniel Desario on Freaks and Geeks to his work in such films as 127 Hours, Milk, and Rise of the Planet of the Apes, from novels and writings to appearances in art films by Paul McCarthy and Isaac Julien, through his current Broadway debut in Of Mice and Men. So at first, we were more than willing to give Franco, who just turned thirty-six, the benefit of the doubt with his latest gallery installation, “New Film Stills,” which continues at Pace through May 3. For the project, Franco re-created (in general, not painstaking detail) more than two dozen of Cindy Sherman’s seminal “Untitled Film Stills,” in which Sherman photographed herself as different female protagonists from 1977 to 1980, as if playing clichéd woman characters in unknown movies, commenting on gender and class identity, power, and the male gaze. Walking through the gallery, we found ourselves entertained by Franco’s homage/appropriation as he, replete with beard and mustache, lounged on a bed in lingerie, examined himself in a mirror, stood outside wearing a hat or kerchief, or walked gingerly down steps. “Cindy is an artist who used cinema as a source for her work; she ‘played’ at being an actress,” Franco has said about the series. “I am an actor who inserts himself into his work. Where Cindy used cinema as a starting place, I use art as a starting place.”
But upon further investigation, including perusing the catalog, the cover of which also mimics Sherman’s, we actually grew somewhat agitated and angry at the well-intentioned Franco. Part of the beauty of Sherman’s original photographs were their originality, as well as the mystery and magic that accompanied each one; they were untitled in order to let viewers enjoy and interpret them on an individual basis. In the introduction to the Franco catalog, American academic, poet, and Franco mentor Frank Bidart writes, “To my eye, there’s nothing ‘camp’ about this male figure inhabiting the scenes and tensions and atmospheres in Sherman’s photographs. Just as there is nothing camp or ironic or mocking when he doesn’t imitate them.” They might not be camp, but they lack the magic and mystery — and, of course, originality — of their primogenitors, eventually feeling lazy before unraveling when you read Franco’s accompanying poetry, which is available only in the catalog and comes off more like a school project. Franco has written a poem — four quatrains, some with an additional line — for each of Sherman’s sixty-nine stills. In “Untitled Film Still #27b,” in which Sherman/Franco holds a cocktail glass, a mascara’d tear running down the left side of his/her face, Franco writes, “Living inside one’s skull / Unable to communicate with the outside. / Are we all artists or is a bunch just / Crazy and another bunch just boring? / Tennessee Williams’s sister Rose / Went nuts and was lobotomized / And Tenn put such material into his work. / Did he disrespect her or help us all / By giving us The Glass Menagerie?” In the end, Franco is disrespecting both Sherman, whom he calls “a hero in my pantheon,” and the viewer by deciding what each photograph might or might not mean while name-dropping famous movies, books, and locations. When philosopher and art critic Arthur C. Danto asked Sherman, “Why did you stop doing the untitled film stills?” she responded, “I ran out of clichés.” In the end, “clichés” are exactly where Franco’s misappropriation begins.