James Franco and Alex Israel: Why Their Obsession With Celebrity Doesn't Pay Off

Melanie Griffiths gets grilled by Alex Israel.
Melanie Griffiths gets grilled by Alex Israel.
Stefanie Keenan/WireImage

See also: James Franco's MOCA Show Opening Night: 'There's Just a Lot of Dicks in There'

In the span of a week, MOCA has subjected us to not one but two art installations that are heavily dependent on celebrity for their content. James Franco's "Rebel" opened the weekend before last at the JF Chen showroom, and this past Saturday night Alex Israel had a video screening and performance of his most recent project, As It Lays, at the Henson Soundstage. Both shows were conspicuously located not at MOCA itself but at pop-up locations in Hollywood.

Franco, a famous actor, and Israel, the son of a well-known art collector, are probably sincere aficionados of culture who believe that they are following a vision. Just like other artists who are less blessed with connections and resources, they work with what they've got, and their lives/backgrounds provide the fodder for their work. It just so happens that Hollywood is that fodder. Franco takes the myth of James Dean and all of its attendant psychosocial issues and "blows it up" through a multilayered re-examination of the film Rebel Without a Cause, while Israel makes odd artistic confections out of a series of short interviews with high-level celebrities. But both projects fall significantly short of gelling into cogent, persuasive works of art.

Franco buoys "Rebel" with a wealth of interesting ideas and observations on acting and the James Dean legacy, as sketched out in his exhibition essay, entitled "Some James Dean Shit." He also enlists a team of impressive, credible artists to join him in his explosive exploration.

But the result is just a loud, immature assault on the senses that is offputting in its many shameless excesses. Naked women with machetes reinterpret the film's famous knife fight scene, cartoon cats give each other blow jobs, and dead celebrities like Natalie Wood and Brad Renfro are the subject of garish odes. All of this is nestled within a gratuitous re-creation of the Chateau Marmont hotel that feels like a truly misguided Disney theme park.

James Franco poses in front of his handiwork.
James Franco poses in front of his handiwork.
Joe Schildhorn/BFAnyc.com

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Glaringly noticeable as you walk through "Rebel" is the amount of money that must have been sunk into this project, and the ease of access that Franco has to said money, not to mention the attentive ear of A-list artists, curators and gallerists. The material world is his oyster, and so apparently is the intellectual world, as his insatiable mind loves to pile layers and layers of references, influences and inquiries into his practice. But quantity -- when it is this lacking in focus and a leaner sense of criticality -- does not equal quality. You could see this in Franco's own four-channel film work, Death of Natalie Wood, which utilized an interesting mix of monitors and projection, but in the end just felt like an endless vomiting up of indistinct YouTube footage.

As for Israel, I recently discussed his practice with a couple of artists whose work I really respect. They said something that stuck with me: "Andy Warhol was a great artist, the real deal. But his work paved the way for a lot of bad art and total bullshit." I wouldn't say that Israel's work is outright bad per se; I actually liked it when he rented Hollywood studio props to create a sculptural installation at the 2010 California Biennial. The father of Pop Art is a tough act to follow, however, and Israel's current project definitely has him swimming in the shallowest end of the Warhol pool.

Molly Ringwald just wants to be remembered as a great mom.
Molly Ringwald just wants to be remembered as a great mom.
Stefanie Keenan/WireImage

As It Lays, which takes its title from the iconic Joan Didion novel Play It As It Lays, which deals with Hollywood malaise, is a YouTube series that has Israel conducting incredibly deadpan interviews with people like the late Vidal Sassoon, Kato Kaelin, Rosanna Arquette, Paul Anka, Marilyn Manson, Angelyne and Phyllis Diller, among many others. Not tied to any context like a recent scandal or new movie to promote, Israel's interviews, which are filled with random and abstract questions, seem to float in the atmosphere like pop culture cotton candy.

 

On Saturday night, Israel's performance consisted, unsurprisingly, of live interviews with three new subjects: surfer Laird Hamilton and actresses Molly Ringwald and Melanie Griffith. They were entertaining enough, as these interviews often are. Israel asked Ringwald how she wanted the world to remember her; as though scripted, she laughed and responded that she only hoped that people would say she was a great mother. Some questions were more routine. He asked Griffiths if she preferred texting or calling; she said she was old-fashioned and preferred the latter.

Laird Hamilton hangs 10 with Alex Israel.
Laird Hamilton hangs 10 with Alex Israel.
Stefanie Keenan/WireImage

The greatness of Warhol's work was that he offered an astute response to contemporary culture at the same time that he forever changed its future course. His fetishization of fame and celebrity called out something that was already in the zeitgeist, and made it his bitch. In Israel's funny, harmless videos, you kind of get the feeling that the artist is the bitch; he's made these awkward little Valentines to celebrity but their biggest draw is still, well, the celebrities.

MOCA director Jeffrey Deitch and Alex Israel get cozy at the screening/performance.
MOCA director Jeffrey Deitch and Alex Israel get cozy at the screening/performance.
Stefanie Keenan/WireImage

As reported here last week, current MOCA director Jeffrey Deitch believes that these projects can act as a sort of gateway drug for the uninitiated, that "through James, we're going to be welcoming and intriguing people who otherwise might find it difficult to access contemporary art." But really, is he employing sound logic here? Are the people who are drawn to an opening reception because James Franco will be there likely to explore Paul McCarthy's extensive influence on contemporary art? Are the people who watch reality star Whitney Port's eight-minute interview on As It Lays going to sign up for a MOCA membership?

Museums are supposed to educate and enlighten in matters of culture. These days, MOCA too often panders to the lowest common denominator, hoping that somewhere in the midst of all that crowd frenzy, something of significance sticks.

See also: James Franco's MOCA Show Opening Night: 'There's Just a Lot of Dicks in There'

Carol Cheh blogs about LA's performance art scene at Another Righteous Transfer! Follow her on Twitter at @righteoustrans. For more arts news follow @LAWeeklyArts and like us on Facebook.

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