"There's just a lot of dicks in there. A lot of porno," painter Ty Williams says, shaking his head. "But I get it, though. I understand the prevalence of penises."
We're standing in the alleyway behind JF Chen, a collectible-furniture showroom and exhibit space, at the opening party for "Rebel," an off-site MOCA multimedia extravaganza produced by the world's most famous grad student, James Franco, in collaboration with an all-star cast of contemporary artists, including Ed Ruscha, Aaron Young, Terry Richardson, Paul McCarthy and Douglas Gordon.
Though Franco was somehow involved in all of the projects shown here, and his ongoing obsession with the sexual secrets and adolescent turmoil behind James Dean and Rebel Without a Cause drives the exhibit, the lineup of bigwigs confers an air of legitimacy lacking at some of Franco's previous shows and stunts.
The exhibit itself has been impressively built-out, looking like a soundstage resembling the Chateau Marmont, with videos playing in individual bungalows and shrubbery strewn with blow-up sex dolls and other detritus referencing the art.
And yes, there were a number of penises on display inside, as Franco and his partners grappled with the pent-up, feverish sexuality of adolescence by exploring, among other themes, the homoerotic tension on-screen in the 1955 film, Dean's real-life bisexuality and a smattering of behind-the-scenes affairs that reportedly took place before and during the shooting of the movie.
A lawyer in an angular black-and-white patterned dress stands with her fiancé, debating the merits of all that skin.
"I don't understand the significance, except to highlight that sex is a commodity and the cheapness of it and the artificiality of it," she says. "Is it that, or is it just sex to sell the art?"
Of the many smutty pieces in the exhibit, the biggest crowd-pleaser was Galen Pehrson's animated El Gato video, which reimagines the movie's fatal game of chicken using horny but cutesy animals, featuring the voices of Franco, actress Jena Malone and musician Devendra Banhart.
But for Yvette Saunders and Carina Christmas, two of the women who stripped nude, carried machetes and rode pink and orange fluorescent bikes for Caput, Harmony Korine's slo-mo video re-enactment of the knife fight in Rebel Without a Cause, the raw sexuality is a celebration, not a marketing technique.
The two became friends after the video shoot, a year and a half ago. Christmas fondly remembers Saunders wore an animal-print thong to the audition.
The jaded jet set, however, was not convinced. I found two affable, older British gentlemen chuckling near the entrance. Henry Brocklehurst, who lives in Maui and casually mentioned that he owns a castle-turned-art gallery back in England, gestures to the neon "Chateau Marmont" sign above us and the camera-ready building facades all around.
"It's over the top," he says. "I would describe it as pretentious, average and mildly irritating." He walks off to deliver a warm hello to MOCA director Jeffrey Deitch.
Brocklehurst's friend, David Philp, says he also was annoyed by the show but enjoyed the "motorbikes and naked trollops, the perennial preoccupations of heterosexual men."
Philp's wife, veteran L.A. art critic Hunter Drohojowska-Philp (formerly of L.A. Weekly), was a bit more polite. "I'm interested in how James Franco sort of insinuated himself into other people's art, which is a bit more subversive," she says. "I mean, the whole thing is really all about James Franco. He certainly has a lot of energy, but then he's very young. Is he here yet, by the way?"
Outside, the alleyway begins to fill. Older men wear black; younger men wear colors. Acquaintances greet each other with great enthusiasm but then quickly look eager to end the conversation. A tan young lady in a short, tight, one-shouldered periwinkle lace dress and towering high heels shuffles from one foot to the other. Loud music is suddenly playing. Increasingly elaborate appetizers appear, including one in a paper cone.
In the back, artist Bert Rodriguez, who was featured in the 2008 Whitney Biennial, chats with Anat Ebgi, owner of L.A. gallery The Company, which currently is doing a show with Aaron Young. Rodriguez contemplates Franco's source material: With such a hectic schedule, he must have no time to simply be, to let his life inspire his art.
"The biggest crutch for any artist is looking at too much art. It's like masturbating and spooging in your own mouth," Rodriguez says. "He's like a kid who just got into art school and is really into the idea of making art all of the time."
Ebgi nods in agreement. "And everything is art, right?" she says, rolling her eyes.
As we wander through this hall of mirrors, speculating about Franco -- his motives, his intelligence, his talent, his inner life -- is unavoidable, is the whole point, somehow.
Because with Franco, what you seek is what you get. He's left such a prolific trail of fiction, short films, feature films, television, advertisements, tabloid fodder, photographs, performance art and 1,000-watt smiles that nearly any identity you feel comfortable projecting onto him will do. Overcommitted slacker student? Sure. That photograph of him "sleeping in class" is actually from a lecture he attended voluntarily around 10 p.m. at night, unrelated to his formal coursework, but if it helps you to process Franco that way, go ahead. Brilliant Renaissance man? I'm sure he'd love you to think that. Self-centered Hollywood jerk, surrounded by yes-men in love with every idea he farts onto paper? Possibly. Earnest and sincere jack-of-all-trades, willing to use his celebrity as a justification to give any old genre a try? Why not.
At this point it doesn't really matter what you assume is going on under the beautiful shell that is James Franco, because as long as you're wondering about it, as long as you're in his orbit, he must feel some validation for all that he is creating. There's no doubt his goals, whatever they may be (world domination through all art forms?), mesh nicely with Jeffrey Deitch's, who is jolting the contemporary art world with a swirl of pop culture and youth.
Dapper and reserved as ever, Deitch traverses the party shaking hands with a clipped smile, in a pinstriped suit and his signature round white glasses. "What I'm interested in is this audience for progressive culture that might be going to the Hollywood Bowl to see an interesting band, who will be standing in line to see one of the best new films, who might be going to Coachella," Deitch says, pronouncing it KOH-uh-CHELL-uh, with four syllables. "Through James, we're going to be welcoming and intriguing people who otherwise might find it difficult to access contemporary art." Deitch's flashy strategy to bring MOCA back into the black is no secret, and he proudly cites the 30,000 people who showed up last month to the Geffen Contemporary for an exhibit curated by Mike D of the Beastie Boys.
Franco himself finally arrives in a gray suit, with mussed hair and a scraggly beard. The open bar has turned to cash and members of the public are trickling in from the lines that stretch down Highland. You can smell the sweat and hunger as a crush of people approach with sidelong glances, wanting to take photos of themselves with Franco, wanting to stare into Franco's eyes, wanting to brush their arms against his, as if physical proximity and visual confirmation that he exists will justify the entire evening.
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I see Saunders and Christmas walk toward him, beaming, and pose for photos on their phones.
"I remember you guys," I hear him say, and I want to think that's true. No matter: For Christmas and Saunders, at 8:30 on a Saturday night in an alleyway in Hollywood, it's true for them.
"Rebel" is on display at JF Chen from 11 a.m.-5 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday, through June 23. Admission is free.