seeing out loud

Saltz: At This Point, George W. Bush Is Actually a Better Artist Than James Franco

Photo: James Franco/Courtesy of Pace Gallery

Art critic Roberta Smith (my wife) wrote a damning review of James Franco’s 65 silly self-obsessed demi-drag re-creations of Cindy Sherman’s 1977-80 “Film Stills,” now being shown at Pace as “New Film Stills.” The review’s last line sums up the situation: “Someone or something, make him stop.” Amen.

I love Franco’s acting. He’s incredible in Spring Breakers. (That scene of him jumping up and down on the bed yelling about how much shit he has is fantastic!) He holds the screen in every second of 127 Hours. But in his repeated efforts to be an artist, Franco is only making bad art. Or things that look like art but are still bad. Either way, the crux of the issue was touched on by the sneaky-brilliant Cindy Sherman herself. When asked by Gallerist what she made of Franco’s act she simply said, “I can only be flattered. 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.”

She’s right. By now hundreds of young artists have riffed on the “Film Stills.” It’s almost required in art schools. I’ve seen painted versions of them, filmed ones, slideshows, a woman dressed as other famous women artists doing them, and a guy who posed his dogs as Sherman in the film stills. It’s a lark meant to slip-stream into art history, comment about feminism or art, and bide time until an artist can actually figure out his or her own work. It’s one of the most predictable holding patterns in all of art. I always tell students who do Sherman remakes, “Cool. Get them out of your system, then get back to work, and don’t show these to anyone. It’s just you masturbating and may mean you’re not meant to be an artist.”

The real question about Franco’s remakes comes back to Sherman’s observation: “It’s weirder that Pace would show them.” No one at the gallery could think this is good work; is it possible someone there thinks Franco’s “performance art” is interesting at this point? But this is what happens when one of these massive megagalleries loses its bearings and vision. Pace has all of this space all over the world. It has several galleries in New York and ones in London, Beijing, and of course, Menlo Park, in Silicon Valley. All these vast spaces must be filled with stuff at all times in order to maintain the operation. Spectacle, success, and supply-side abundance begin to take over. As overhead and corporate merchandizing increase, quality and aesthetic complexity begins to decrease. The gallery begins to seem lost, irrelevant, clueless.

With “New Film Stills,” Pace has backed itself into a corner with no credible way out. The gallery can either say We’re publicity whores and want long lines to see bad gewgaws by a celebrity. Or it can say We love this art. Neither is a defensible position. And it must be having deleterious effects within the gallery. And not just with the diligent staff; Pace artists must look at this show (and others at Pace, like the recent Raqib Shaw double exhibition), wonder what is going on in their gallery, and dream of leaving.

Which brings us to the depressing part of the megagallery game: Artists in these galleries are trapped. Many of them are in overproduction and maintain huge staffs and can only go to another megagallery. Many others weren’t that good to begin with and probably can’t go anywhere at all. As one writer wrote to me about the unlikelihood of any kind of artist exodus, “We live in a world where the majority of people will sigh, shrug and keep on doing what they were doing before.” This person ruefully added, “I’m waiting for the moment when ‘James Franco the artist’ is revealed to be a collaborative project by Tony Shafrazi, Urs Fischer and Gavin Brown.” In other words, to know how far down the rabbit hole we’ve come; at this point George W. Bush is actually a better artist than James Franco.

James Franco, “New Film Stills”: Pace Gallery, 508 W. 25th St.; through May 3.

Jerry Saltz on James Franco’s ‘New Film Stills’