Friday, June 25, 2010

VMAN/James Franco


AIMEE WALLESTON | June 25, 2010

You can’t artfully pretend to not know who James Franco is. And, as his upcoming exhibition of film, sculpture, photography, installation, and performance at the historic Clocktower Gallery in Manhattan dictates, you also can’t pretend that Franco hasn’t become a creator whose ability to inhabit seemingly any cultural and vocational carapace—from scholar to soap star—informs an artistic practice wholly unlike any other.

But who, really, is the artist called James Franco, and what kind of artwork does he make? His first solo exhibit, titled The Dangerous Book Four Boys, is a multi-tiered discursion on the constructed essences and affectations of masculinity. Via a series of layered films, structures, and assemblages, Franco has constructed a psychological funhouse mirror in which to view these identity fragments. What is most immediately evident in the work is that Franco has taken a phenomenological approach toward the depiction of a masculine identity from childhood onward. The exhibition, which unfolds through the Clocktower’s cluster of classroom-like chambers, starts with an installed heap of objects recalling in equal parts - a boy’s bedroom, or a stoner’s party pad, or a trashed hotel room, and ends in the space’s large gallery with a refined arrangement of plywood forts, rockets, and sheds.

At the center-point of the show is a small screening room, outlined with a series of Polaroid’s featuring Franco with his face covered in cream and punctuated with a fake moustache and fake eyebrows (an interpretation of the ritual of shaving taken to hyper masculine extremes). A multimedia visual essay commissioned by VMANDouble-Third-Portrait, a collaboration with American artist Carter, is projected on a dirty bed sheet near the room’s right wall. The film shows Franco cycling through a seemingly endless catalog of action hero archetypes, replete with burning motorcycles, evangelical voiceovers, gangster mob shootings, and flamethrowers—plus an assassination by a firing line (armed with flaming arrows) of a mannequin standing in for Saint Sebastian. He stands as the lone breadcrumb, offering the idea that these power-charged forays into testosterone overdrive are presented here without the complication of sexual impulse—the problem that makes Sebastian forever the target. The project seems to ask the question: what do the totems of power— specifically male power, add up to when they are pushed almost fantastically past their resolution?

In the following room, a sort of self-portrait in the form of a large pile of detritus lies in wait, full of witty signifiers alluding to Franco’s work on the big screen (including a trucker cap airbrushed with the name “Tristan” and a James Dean lunch box) and to a child’s life (a hobby horse takes center stage). Amid this pile are three small monitors which screen Franco’s comedy sketches for the Funny or Die website. In them, he satirically teaches his younger brother how to act—and badgers him to remember the death of their cat Toby, and to use this sense memory to evoke tears. Beneath these monitors, you can see a photo that appears to be a young Franco holding a cat, and beneath this photo lies a disturbingly similar taxidermied cat, delivering a feeling of uncanny. Franco uses comedy as a methodology that can be as cruel as it is winsome.

Within this room, two films are screened, including Dicknose Goes to Paris, a Wes Anderson meets Bande à part meets the Chapman Brothers caper featuring Franco with a prosthetic Pinocchio nose of sorts. Another film, Masculinity and Me, focuses on the naïveté of young sexuality, where release and sterility become tied to larger cultural constructions. The films possess a compelling, undefined character. They seem to lie in another world and time. Their content could be biography, autobiography, fantasy, stoner comedy, Gus Van Sant–esque metafiction, or the ideal integrated masculinity moving through each of those. In their irresolute, pop culture-inflected brilliance, these films link to what the artist was up to–i.e. the reconfiguration of known forms–when he made his notorious star turn in General Hospital, playing a murderous artist named Franco (Franco will reportedly be returning to the soap this summer, bringing along the young video artist Kalup Linzy–best known for his 2003 video work All My Churen).

In the main gallery, one finds an installation of sepia-tone photographs and fort-like shed structures. Films displayed within the gallery show the sheds on fire, and one shed has flames projected inside it. A “Viewing House” shed screens eight films dating from 2007 onward; a highlight is Star Trek, which features Captain Kirk and Spock in an ill-fated vulcan mind meld. As one reaches the end of this complex assemblage, it becomes clear that Franco has created a new palette of appropriation and conceptual agenda. In its interrogation of masculinity, The Dangerous Book Four Boys defines the methodology of an artist for a new decade.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Art in America/New Jerseyy

In Basel: New Jerseyy State of Mind

The art world's upper echelon doesn't typically travel to Art Basel's yearly fair for boxing lessons. However, in the imminent bubble doom of 2008, learning how to dodge, weave and roll with the punches might not have been such a bad idea. For their first exhibition, in 2008, Basel's New Jerseyy art space opened a boxing gym. Curated by John Armleder and armed with a passel of his students, the gym held organized workouts and set up a few matches between artists. Since then, the space, founded by curator Daniel Baumann and artists Tobias Madison, Emanuel Rossetti, and graphic designer Dan Solbach, has presented shows that combine better-known contemporary artists—Cory Archangel recently partnered with the crew at No Soul for Sale at the Tate Modern—and community-based projects.

Many of New Jerseyy's exhibitions, which include pizza dinners and movie screenings, are so casually deconstructive of the formalities of gallery-going and art fairs that they might be interpreted as a chilled out, non-didactic model of Relational Aesthetics. But the space is dedicated to its visual and performance-based program, and the social aspects seem more about providing an alternate reality to Basel's identity as a blue chip playground with a fairground at its core. Says Solbach: "The fair has always been a part of us living and growing up in Basel and working in or with ‘the market.' We realized that an anti-market (or in this case anti-fair) position doesn't give anyone benefits. We don't try to present an alternative to the fair; we just continue our program as we do throughout the year and try to make a good exhibition."

A humble space located in a decidedly unbucolic area on the opposite side of town from the precious, touristed Old Basel, in a neighborhood ripped open by constant construction, New Jerseyy does represent a the trickle-down and the void that a seasonal, imported market economy can create. The name New Jerseyy, Solbach says, was based on the sense of living in an area of diffusion and overflow, "The area where we're located reminded us of a fictional image we had of the state of New Jersey." Adding the extra "Y" helps them "get better results on Google." Says Baumann, "New Jerseyy always was and still is about knowing the language and playing with it to make space for art. We discuss a lot about what gesture has what meaning, how it can be and how it might be understood. Sometimes we do things because we know they will be misunderstood."

During last year's Art Basel, Norwegian artist Ida Ekblad painted the strorefront windows of New Jerseyy as if with soap, creating a expressionistic mural, highlighting the plainspoken seduction of truly good painting while suggesting that the gallery was closed. This year's exhibition is helmed by New York-based artist Rob Pruitt, whose taste for excess has found a new inspiration: found American church signs that employ aphoristic slogans mangled with contemporary slang to do God's work (an example: "Sunday's Message: Jesus Said, Bring Me That Ass"). The gallery displays Pruitt's collection of panda bear memorabilia.

One expects this exhibition will give Basel a big dose of New York art at its most willfully rambunctious, though these geographical distinctions may be more and more antiquated. Says Solbach, "The New York scene has always been important for us. Everyone now is up-to-date through blogs and communities, so we talk about art in New York as we'd talk about art in Switzerland." In the beginning, New Jerseyy felt quite distant from power centers like New York, or even their own town. "Now, in our third year, the personal connections grew to a circle of friends and even fans," says Solbach. "Apparently a lot of people know us in New York, which is still weird to me."


Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Last Magazine/Louise Bourgeois



Most of us want to pretend that bad things never happened to us, that we have never been ashamed or mistreated—and, more importantly, that we’ve never done so to others. French artist Louise Bourgeois transformed all the bruising lies we tell ourselves into forms with a telltale heart that beat out for pernicious, principled truth. And she was really funny, with her huge, menacing arachnid forms and snickering phallic anecdotes. Her passing allows us to remember the function of art: sometimes understanding objects is the closest we will ever get toward understanding ourselves.