New Film Stills opened last night in New York. It present a series of photographs made by James Franco in 2013, recreating Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills from 1977-79. “Like Sherman’s characters,” says Frank Bidart in the catalogue, “the figures [Franco] portrays outrun one’s naturalistic expectations in their stoicism and defiance, in their mystery. Somewhere in their expressions they keep an awareness of ‘a connection to the void.’ With this book Franco has made something profound.”
Well, I like Franco but I’m going to cry “bullshit” at “profound.” Sherman’s Film Still series transcended photography and made her into a world-wide art superstar. Her work sells for millions and I really do like it. It’s art history now, no arguing that.
James Franco says, “Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills broke new ground in so many ways: they can be read as critique of portrayals of women in film, a critique that goes hand in hand with the work of critic Laura Mulvey; they can be read as performances; as photographs; as examinations of types; they are both humorous and earnest. Cindy is an artist who used cinema as a source for her work; she ‘played’ at being an actress. I am an actor who inserts himself into his work. Where Cindy used cinema as a starting place, I use art as a starting place. She, like so many of my favorite artists (Douglas Gordon, Richard Prince, Dan Colen, Nate Lowman, Paul McCarthy) uses cinema in her work, but she comes at it from a position outside of Hollywood. I am fully embedded in Hollywood, but these photos allow me to take a step to the side, look back, and refashion the work I do in Hollywood. I am at the same time actor, critic, artist, and character.”
Yes, I agree with all of that, she’s the conceptual female Warhol of her generation. People LOVE her work, but in the art world and especially in photography, she is WAY too overrated, in my book. Yes, her work has layers but there’s always been something so “art school and academic” about it, to me. Maybe that why she’s liked, and in photography and art classes has been SO imitated. This series is already a copy of a copy. The film stills that she apes, are imitations of life. So, this “new work” James Franco is exhibiting has been copied like a xerox machine set on 1000. Take a look for yourself at the examples here. I may have included one too many but I wanted to emphasize that this is FAR from a new idea. At what point does the copy fade out entirely. I think the toner cartridge is getting pretty dang low by 2014. Franco's actual fame is the extra ingredient – the thing that elevates and adds that extra flavor to his series. But it has a strange aftertaste like most of his stunts.
For me, Madonna and photographer Steven Meisel did this MUCH better 20+ years ago with their SEX collaboration. She was THE most famous woman in the world at the time, and there she was, having every kind of sexual encounter – and the best image of all – naked, hitchhiking. Franco is one handsome, lucky devil – starring on Broadway and opening in Chelsea at the same time – and you wake up in the morning looking like THAT. No wonder he’s confident. James Franco: New Film Stills is at Pace Gallery from April 11 through May 3, 2014. To read an interview with Sherman on the origins of her famous series, go here.