21st-Century Renaissance Man: James Franco Infiltrates the Berlin Art World

What happens when a Hollywood heartthrob and the art world collide? Berlin is about to find out as it plays host to James Franco’s first ever commercial gallery show. The actor spoke to SPIEGEL ONLINE about the challenges of overcoming the skeptism and embracing his own celebrity in his art.

The idea that Berlin has become a mecca for young artists from across the world has become something of a cliché, but the buzz surrounding a new art opening on Saturday night has less to do with the much-hyped city than the global celebrity of the artist himself.

Hollywood actor James Franco is launching his first commercial gallery show in the German capital, with works that address the anarchy and confusion of adolescence, and that also play with the unavoidable fact of his own fame.

The show features “childhood motives and images,” Franco explained to SPIEGEL ONLINE. “It’s about coming of age or defining oneself and the kind of self-definition that comes when you’re younger.”

Franco tried to use subjects that were childlike and then “amp them up a little bit.” “I guess what I was trying to do is to just get at the essential nature of certain things by making them childish and simple,” he explained.

Large plastic houses are destroyed, there are oversized wooden rockets, and it features scribbles and doodles on the pages of “The Dangerous Book for Boys.” It is an exhibtion that delves into sexuality and masculinity and which encompasses photographs, drawings, sculptures and over 20 videos.

The show, entitled “The Dangerous Book Four Boys” at Peres Projects, had a previous incarnation last summer at New York’s non-profit Clocktower Gallery, but this time is the first that the works are up for sale.

It’s another big step outside the comfort zone for Franco, who seems to revel in embracing challenges beyond the scope of most famous actors. It’s been 12 years since the actor first appeared in the short-lived TV show “Freaks and Geeks,” before catapulting onto the wider world’s radar as Tobey Maguire’s friend and then foe in the “Spiderman” films. He would later reach the A-list with performances in “Milk,” “Howl” and “Eat, Pray, Love.” The fact that he is co-presenting the Academy Awards this year and is also tipped for a best actor Oscar for his role in “127 Hours” has only sealed his place in the Hollywood firmament.

‘An Important Body of Work’

Yet, instead of settling for the well-trodden path of many a movie star with the requisite fast cars and faster women, Franco has chosen a more interesting route, diversifying into academia and art. The 32-year-old went back to school in 2006 to complete his undergraduate degree at UCLA before enrolling at various graduate programs in New York. Today, he is a PhD student in English literature at Yale. Between his films, Franco has also somehow managed to find the time to write a book of short stories and make a name for himself as an up-and-coming artist.

Javier Peres, who runs the two galleries in Berlin’s Mitte and Kreuzberg districts that are the venues for the show, knows Franco from the art scene back in Los Angeles. “He does a lot. The energy of this guy,” he told SPIEGEL ONLINE. “I kind of get tired just thinking about it. That’s the way he rolls.”

Peres says it wasn’t Franco’s fame that attracted his interest, but rather the actor’s art. “On their own merits I think they are incredible and it’s a really special opportunity to bring a very important body of work by an artist that I think is really compelling and interesting,” he said.

Peres likes the way Franco appears in his own work, playing with the notion of celebrity. “He uses himself as a subject matter and he uses himself as an ingredient in the art work like a painter would use oil on canvas.”

Franco had avoided incorporating himself in his earlier works. “I thought it would just be distracting if I put myself in them,” he says. But then his collaboration with Carter, a New York-based artist, on a piece entitled “Erased James Franco,” where he recreated some of his movie performances, allayed these concerns. “It showed me that I could use myself as a performer and use, I guess, my celebrity in a certain way … and that it would allow me to do different kinds of performances that differ from what I’m doing when I act in a commercial narrative film.”

‘There’s a Larger Obstacle for Actors’

In movies, the job demands that he help create an imaginary world, he says, one in which “I’m trying to play a character and help tell a story.” In his art, on the other hand, he can be himself, or at least a version of himself.

That, in some way, was also what he chose to do during his stint last year on the long-running soap opera General Hospital, when he played “Franco,” a homicidal performance artist. The audience was always aware that he was the actor James Franco playing the part, something compounded by the fact that the writers chose to use his name. “It’s even harder to get past the fact that it’s me when you watch the show because they’re saying my real name every three minutes.”

The videos in the Peres show in Berlin are similar, he says, in that the viewer is constantly aware of the artist’s identity. In General Hospital, Franco says “the idea is infiltrating national television whereas in the Peres show I guess you could say that the idea is infiltrating the art world.”

Of course, it is difficult for a celebrity to make the jump to the art world without being accused of dilettantism or “creative schizophrenia,” as one newspaper described his forays beyond acting. Franco acknowledges this: “I think most people are skeptical of an actor having an art show at a legitimate art gallery.” He points out that things are easier for those moving in the other direction, with artists like Steve McQueen and Julian Schnabel gaining acceptance as movie directors. “I think there’s a larger obstacle for actors.”

Peres is confident that those who see the show will get past Franco’s Hollywood baggage and focus on the work. “I think a lot of serious people, collectors, museums, curators, writers will look at for its merits and will make conclusions based on what they see rather than what they think of him in ‘Spiderman'”

Franco points out that in the show he acknowledges that he comes from the film world. “It’s just that I’m trying to approach it from a different angle.”

“A lot of the pieces are based in that world or they are attempts to bridge both worlds,” he says. “In this show I tried to embrace the fact that I come from the movie world.”

First published on Spiegel International: http://www.spiegel.de/international/zeitgeist/0,1518,745119,00.html

Photo Gallery: http://www.spiegel.de/fotostrecke/fotostrecke-64525.html

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