James Franco on Skirting Populist Expectations in His "Gay Town" Show in Berlin

James Franco and Javier Peres
(Courtesy Przemek Pishchek and Peres Projects, Berlin)

BERLIN — James Franco is at it again. Rather, by the looks of his new exhibition at Peres Projects in Berlin — which opened alongside his screening of the latest “Oz” film and pet project “Interior.Leather Bar” at the 2013 Berlinale — he’s been at it nonstop. “Gay Town” features 500 works, including 25 paintings and video pieces as well as a massive new series of screen-prints on throw blankets. In the two years since his last show with Javier Peres, it’s hard to imagine where he found the time.

The blankets works are by far the bulk of the exhibition, layering the walls alongside his paintings or stacked on the floors, some even stretched and piled behind the galleries desk. These have been screen-printed with subjects ranging from his drawings and collages, to photos taken of him or by him on the road, annotations on texts such as Variety newspaper articles or on other images, as well as a number of traditionally rendered fat animal pictures (paintings he’d commissioned from another artist, later photographed and screen-printed by Franco).


On the one hand, the show could fit the punchline for any “What in the world is James Franco doing now?” joke. But take Franco’s celebrity out of the equation (and his sponsored Gucci suit), and the paintings feel miles away from some exploitative use of fame. With his black-and-white portraits based on images from his high-school yearbook, and loud figurative paintings of cow heads, the exhibition seems transported straight from a Bushwick studio to a show on the LES or in Copenhagen. Likewise, the video works, though featuring scenes from Franco’s films as well as appropriated scenes from the “Fucking James Franco” fan fiction compilation, are identity art to a great and non-deplorable extent.

ARTINFO Germany’s Alexander Forbes sat down with Franco after the opening to talk about mixing film and art, shrugging off low expectations, and using his public persona as material.

So, you had the show with Peres Projects in 2011, which seemed to spark all kinds of other opportunities in the visual arts for you. Why the return back to Berlin now?

I love showing here. Maybe that’s because of my particular situation, or how I started working with Javier: I did a show in New York three years ago at the Clocktower Gallery. It was called “The Dangerous Book Four Boys,” which got some pretty decent reviews but nothing spectacular. Javier asked me if I wanted to take the same show to his gallery, and the reviews here were so much better. There was obviously something different going on here among the people coming to see it. I experienced the exact same thing with my writing: the reviews were okay in the States, but in England I was on a list of best first-time novelists. I felt like maybe people here could engage with the work in a little more direct way without getting tied up in the baggage of my other profession.

Do you think that is because people are less tied up here in celebrity, at least Hollywood celebrity culture, than they are in the U.S.? Or, alternatively, even lacking the particular New York blasé attitude?

Well, I guess I wasn’t surprised in either case. I knew that people would not accept me with open arms. It’s not like I’m moonlighting. I take this as seriously as I take anything else. If I do something silly, if I do some sort of video on the Internet that you could look into and see something maybe but for the most part is just a silly video, people love it. But if I do something that has any ring of artiness to it or any sense that it’s on a slightly elevated level, there are people [who] just want to kill me. That’s what’s kind of annoying.

But also really interesting at the same time. You could just exploit that populist approach, but you don’t.

Well, here’s the thing: I’m not pitying myself in any way. It’s a relief to show in Berlin, but the fact is I do get to engage in the things that I’m interested in everywhere. I’m very fortunate. There are awards, if you consider that sort of thing success. But for me, I consider my career a success if I get to keep pursuing the kind of things that I’m interested in and I enjoy what I create. I do take this stuff seriously. I use a lot of humor in my work, and I don’t hide anymore from the fact that I come from the commercial film world, that I am, I guess, a celebrity. When I first started to do art I thought that I had to keep it separate. Now, I do the opposite: It all goes together and each side comments on the other.

A lot of my favorite artists like Douglas Gordon or Cindy Sherman use film as a reference. I may not be a better artist than them, but what I have as an advantage is that I come from that world. It allows me a different amount of access and knowledge. But it also opens up the possibility to create work that can straddle the line between art and film. If I can achieve that and not let either side take over, that’s powerful. The fame thing is not going to go away. But what I can do is step outside it enough or frame it in a certain way such that I can use it not for self-aggrandizement but as a source of work and material. It’s not about making a commentary about me as a person, but on the public persona.

So that’s where this central video work “Fucking James Franco” comes in?

Yeah, the whole story behind that work is so funny. The book was made by this guy who lives in Oregon. When it came out, I didn’t really know if he was being hostile but figured it was a group of art students who were attacking me because of my notoriety. But, the most interesting part was that they were using my name, using the very thing they were criticizing in the process. You write something called “Fucking James Franco” and it’s going to get attention. Then, I started getting these messages from him through friends of mine at RISD. He would send them signed copies of the book to give to me. So, I made the piece and he found out about it; it was my thesis project at RISD.

Cut to about a week ago as I’m walking around the MOCA book fair in L.A. I was on the phone and saw the pamphlets out of the corner of my eye, so I tried to walk away to the center of the room but he walked up to me. He stood there and looked at me and I asked him, “You sent me copies of the book. Did you think I was going to like it?” He said that it wasn’t meant to be nasty towards me, but then he got really angry at me for appropriating the work! He was as offended as I should have been. The project wasn’t even revenge. For me it was about inserting myself into the situation, taking the step that none of the writers could have taken by giving them the body of the real James Franco to act out their fantasies.

Does the blanket project also mirror this kind of co-optation of yourself?

I really enjoyed the blanket project because they’re things you can make at Walmart — not the images, but the [screen-printed] blankets themselves. A lot of artists use consumer-level materials, but in this case the final form itself is a consumer product. That commercial context then frames something that’s a layering of my persona both within the images and on the walls themselves. 

To see images from James Franco's "Gay Town" at Peres Projects, click on the slideshow.