For some time now, James Franco’s relationship to visual art has been gathering momentum alongside a high-profile acting career, itself notable for its creative diversity and scope.
So much so, in fact, that a distinctly self-reflexive thread runs through much of even his most mainstream media activities, with the actor frequently playing with his identity and exploring the boundary between playing a character and being himself.
This year saw his UK exhibition debut at Pace London, with an installation that took this kind of fracturing of identities further. Using his own filmic identity as a linchpin, Franco’s show, Psycho Nacirema, played out the complexities of his relationship to the world of cinema in a multimedia deconstruction of Hitchcock’s movie Psycho (1960).
A meticulously reproduced Bates Motel became the vessel in which Franco could unpack a multilayered and ambivalent relationship to movies, one that is marked by both celebration and alienation, warped by conflicting forces and narratives, and refracted by layers of reality and personae.
I had met Franco some years ago, and was aware then of his growing interest in visual art, although it had not at the time found an outlet. Curious to learn how he had reached the point of making full-scale art exhibitions, I caught up with him at the opening of Psycho Nacirema and learned that I had unknowingly played a part in the decision. In the email conversation that followed, we discussed how this came about and what the business of artmaking brings to his proliferating creative output.
One aspect of my life is consumed by this public persona. it is not really in my control
NIGEL COOKE When we first met some years ago, at the premiere of Spider-Man 2 , I remember you spoke about a lacuna in your relationship to the film as a ‘work’. As an outsider, this surprised me. Lazily I had perhaps assumed the opposite, mistaking the aura of the cinematic spectacle and all the sonic enhancements as proof of a deepening involvement. As it’s all exaggerated and unreal and you as an actor are so centralised, it’s not hard to imagine that the feedback from the project is equally enlarged and crystalline. But clearly that’s not the case. How did the journey begin from this arena to that of visual art?
JAMES FRANCO You’re right, about a lot of things. We had a conversation after the premiere and I asked you if you had a hard time talking about your work, because I had just gone through a long day of press where I was asked the same questions a million times: basically what I did to prepare and what it was like to work with Sam [Raimi], Kirsten [Dunst] and Tobey [Maguire]. You said that you had no problem talking about your work, which stunned me, because I suddenly realised that you were working in a field in which you were in total control of your medium.
actors are in the strange position of getting the most attention while usually having the least amount of control over a project
As a painter, all the decisions were yours, and because of that you could talk about why you made such decisions and the concepts behind your reasons. It was an epiphany. As an actor working in film I was not the person behind most of the creative decisions, especially in a film as large as Spider-Man 2. I was part of a larger project. I have since come to appreciate the collaborative process of filmmaking, but only because I have carved out a space where I can do work with complete control. I was able to break out of the mould, which has allowed me to accept my role as an actor in film.
Actors are in the strange position of getting the most attention while usually having the least amount of control over a project. This can be a maddening place to be, and you see a lot of actors rebelling against it in various ways: some get political, some do a lot of charity, some go into directing, some get into drugs. I found that my rebellion needed both to allow me to escape the film world and simultaneously to find a way to reengage with it.
That is why so much of my work examines films and everything surrounding films: persona, celebrity, filmmaking, performance, reality, simulacra, time, rumours, etc, but through other mediums. As so many of my favourite artists use film as a source for their work (whether they used moving images or not), I realised that I had a special position: I could also use film as a source, but I was also deeply in the film world. This made my reuse of film powerful and unique, because I could straddle the line between worlds.
I want the presence of the artist to be felt in the installations. I want the viewers to be immersed in the space
NC This unique position comes across with a hands-on directness in the Pace show, almost as if your life in movies has opened up the possibility for a kind of manual thought. It was if you were driven by a kind of bathetic rematerialising of quite hallowed cultural material – converting scenes and aspects from Hitchcock’s Psycho into frenetic paintings, shower curtains, oversize guestbooks, carefully patinated reconstructions of motel rooms, etc.
Not to mention the fact that the ‘blood’ smeared around the entire show was cadmium red acrylic paint, not used to emulate the look of real blood but existing purely as paint. It seemed more a metaphor for authorship and artistic legitimacy through the convention of the painted mark. There is a kind of entitlement, even irreverence to this kind of heavily material engagement with film. Would you agree that your taking control of the creative process manifests itself in a mostly material way, maybe growing out of the manual production side of art – painting and sculpture, in other words?
JF Yes, exactly, I want the presence of the artist to be felt in the installations. I want the viewers to be immersed in the space. I want film to be broken apart so that its individual components (performance, set design, wardrobe, art direction, props, scenic-backdrop paintings, etc) are made discrete again, ‘pulled through the screen’ and once again bestowed with their distinct artistic properties away from the film.
But once I confer this independence, basically by creating an installation that is dependent on film as an artistic ‘adaptation’ of a film, I then put it back together with messy fingerprints over all of the pieces. The seams show too, because commercial film would normally erase them. It’s the nature of the medium, making it very hard to distinguish the work of all the different artists and crafts people who contribute.
In the artworld I can claim my fractured identity as an actor for my own purposes
But in the Psycho Nacirema installation, the point is to distinguish all the parts, to give each object an individualised identity as an art piece. This is one of the reasons for the final layer of red paint over everything, to give a sense of the artist’s mark as a kind of signature. Without such markings, then, the set will revert back to its status as set, and the props will just look like props.
The emphasis is material because then film is turned into a physical medium, and made strange, in the [Viktor] Shklovsky sense. The presence of the person handling the materials is then foregrounded, the polished status of the work eradicated.
NC The unfamiliarity you seek is pivotal in your case I think, as your status as a movie star puts certain conditions in place. For most artists, their persona is very much in the background. At one of my shows, for example, no one is that interested in who made the work, really. They take the work as the ‘thing’. With you, there is the juggernaut of your public profile, and what you represent for many people in popular culture.
This must be a hard thing to ‘make strange’; you on the screen, you in a photograph – these are things many people want to see. Is the inclusion of yourself in the work – photographs of you in costume particularly – an attempt to make strange your own filmic iconicity, break it down and revitalise it, reclaim it even? And is there a danger that the magnetism of your image is just too strong for that, and you end up centre stage anyway?
I found that if I embraced my situation rather than ran from it, then I could access something unique
JF Yeah, exactly, one aspect of my life is consumed by this public persona. This is something that is created by me and by others. It is not really in my control. It is made up of the roles I play, the things I write, the interviews I give, the way different magazines and newspapers write about me, the way people talk about me; it is a big amorphous thing. When I was a younger actor I tried to control this thing, to make it into something cool, by being very particular about what I said and what I let get out into the public.
I used to try to keep this public persona away from my creative work, to hide behind my work as much as possible. But I realised that there was no real way to escape it. I also realised a few other things:
1) that it was something different entities were using to sell their own products. So, if they were using this public persona for their own purposes, why shouldn’t I reclaim it and use it for my purposes?
2) I realised that my particular place in the world and the pop culture universe was fairly unique, that being in mainstream media was not a very common experience, so if I brought that into my work, it would allow for unique content. In art school everyone is taught to find his or her ‘voice’, to develop a unique art language and subject matter. Well, I found that if I embraced my situation rather than ran from it, then I could access something unique.
And my use of myself in the work does complicate its significance. I am an actor by profession, so my identity is already fractured. By using this identity in the artworld I can claim this fracturing for my own purposes. And I can address the kind of fracturing that we all experience as subjects in this contemporary world. In a film I am trying (usually) to stay within the parameters of the film’s reality. In the artworld I can underline the roleplaying aspect of my work at the same time that I am playing the role.
My aim is to make the boundaries between visual forms, high and low, personal and impersonal, fiction and nonfiction all fluid and blurred
In a show like Psycho Nacirema my public persona takes over, but that’s ok, because I have incorporated it into the show already. So, if my persona as an actor hovers over this show, or becomes the centre around which it finds its ultimate definition, it’s ok, because I have made room for that. It is me and it isn’t me, in the best way.
NC One thing that strikes me about your public persona taking over is the ‘insulation’ it might provide you in the art environment. In some sense the sight of you within the show is arresting, in that you have appeared almost out of context, and you’re right, a dialogue is then formed about how the context contributes to the meaning of the image and the sense we build of who you might be.
But James Franco in film or a photograph has a kind of built-in success at the same time, in that you are a professional actor and model, in demand and known to be so. In the paintings, on the other hand, you don’t have the same security. It is very hard to pin them onto your public persona at all, and in this there is a kind of vulnerability that takes our perceptions of your persona in a different direction. As you mentioned earlier, any ease I might have in talking about my work comes partly from being in control of the whole process.
But another aspect also grows from the correspondence I have with the paintings privately, a process of learning about the persona that makes the work. Maybe I’m bound to say this, but to me paintings in general seem more interior, always already the product of a kind of alter ego or fractured self. I felt that yours had more than just a symbolic role in the show (paint = artistic signature). It was a part of your identity that couldn’t rely on the ‘you’ of mainstream culture in any way, and in that there was something different at stake. Does this factor into your thinking?
JF Yes, there is very much a private self that is interacting with the work as it’s being made. But this private self is being plugged into a larger machine. I set up the pieces and architecture of the show as a collaboration with Alfred Hitchcock, with Fatty Arbuckle and with the collective perception of the work and legends of these men. I know that the collaborations were actively fuelled from my side, as if I were a necrophiliac having relationships with corpses.
I have pulled specific, loaded sequences from the work of Hitchcock and Fatty Arbuckle in order to engage with them
I have pulled specific, loaded sequences from the work of Hitchcock and Fatty in order to engage with them. By isolating and framing the shower sequence from Psycho, and juxtaposing some of Fatty Arbuckle’s silent shorts with depictions of the alleged rape and murder of Virginia Rappe, I give myself very potent obstacle courses in which to insert myself. But because there is a public connection to the material I’ve selected, especially in the case of Psycho, there is also an interaction with that collective public understanding.
In these collaborations or creative excavations, it was important for me to go back to the original sites where their work was created: the Universal set for Psycho, and the actual room in the St Francis Hotel in San Francisco. Now, this is the Bates Motel that Gus Van Sant built for his version of Psycho , but it is still the actual place where Hitchcock made his film. I like the fact that we shot our ‘remake’ in the location where Van Sant – one of my favourite directors – shot his remake of Hitchcock.
The Fatty films were shot in the actual hotel room at the St Francis Hotel in San Francisco – room 1221, I think – where Fatty had attended the party that led to accusations of rape and murder. During the actual filming at those locations, where the actual guys lived and created, I am entering that private space a painter enters when he is interacting with the canvas. I am not sure how the subjects for your paintings arise, but my guess is that there is a gradual evolution as the persona, or alter ego you describe, latches onto a subject in his mind while at the same time the paint on the canvas starts to define what’s in his mind in return.
Because performance uses the body rather than paint, my work starts to emerge as I engage with the sites and the work of these other guys. The work is captured by a camera to be edited, so I think the editing process is the closest parallel to your constant repainting (as I saw when I visited your studio years ago). I saw that you started with an image and then painted over it many times. You have spoken about this as a way to understand what you want to paint.
Your search seems to take place on a single canvas, a search for the ‘final’ form. In a way that is what film editing is like, but in the digital age we can save each step of the way. Your approach effaces each incarnation as you go. So, my engagement with the subjects, my ‘collaborations’ with Hitchcock and Fatty, or whomever the subject might be, go through many different stages and result in many different forms.
My aim is to make the boundaries between visual forms, between high and low, personal and impersonal, between fiction and nonfiction all fluid and blurred. The blurring takes place in all artwork, but I want to emphasise the blurring so that it becomes one of the main aspects of the work.
James Franco’s monthly art diary begins in the November 2013 issue of ArtReview
This article was first published in the October 2013 issue.