Publicity Stunt

Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer and Jeff Hassay on James Franco at MoCA

Los Angeles

Left: LA MoCA director Jeffrey Deitch with James Franco. Right: A projection of James Franco's face.

MAYBE YOU’VE NOTICED that James Franco has been steadily inching his way into the art world: showing up at high-profile openings, befriending artists, and collaborating with artist and filmmaker Carter on the art film Erased James Franco. Franco’s art-world trajectory reached its bewildering apex last Thursday evening during the unfolding of Soap at MoCA: James Franco on General Hospital, the latest installment in the fiction-cum-reality of his ongoing guest appearances on the classic soap opera as the mysterious handsome bad guy with a dark creative edge: “Franco” . . . the psychotic artist “whose canvas is murder” . . . dun-dun-dun!

Culminating several narrative arcs on the daytime drama, Franco’s character “Franco” lands an exhibition that was staged on location in the plaza in front of the MoCA Pacific Design Center. The taping of his final GH episodes doubled as a live metaperformance acted out before an audience of invited art-world guests and giddy soap fans. A massive, looming image of the artist-actor’s face was projected, all night, onto the front of the museum, both a creepy backdrop for the filming and a big-brother touchstone for everyone present. A dizzying wild card, the collapsing of “real” Franco with “soap” Franco in the MoCA limelight was handily played by actor, museum, and television show alike. When we asked (“real”) Franco about his motivation for entering the art world and appearing on GH, he seemed very aware of the complexity of the situation and explained that “if I did it on a soap opera, we could get away with being over the top” and possibly capture something real about the art world in the process. He clarified that his surprising descent into soaps was part of a larger self-reflexive, conceptual project. (Too bad—if he were less explicit and more deadpan, the gesture would have packed more of a punch, like Andy Kaufman incongruously waiting tables at Jerry’s Famous Deli at the height of his Taxi fame.) MoCA’s newly anointed director, Jeffrey Deitch, billed the event as the Warholian meeting of middlebrow pop culture and vanguard art.

The evening, which got rolling around 7 PM (and was scheduled to last until 6 AM!), brought together three distinct groups: everyone directly involved in the shooting of General Hospital (including cast, crew, Franco, Deitch, and artist-turned–GH guest Kalup Linzy); the cheering soap audience (corralled onto a small, grassy knoll around the ad hoc set, spontaneously breaking out into a squealing estrogen-drenched fervor with every glimpse of GH star Steve Burton); and an insouciant art crowd (who mostly congregated atop a third-floor balcony, literally looking down on the performance with much the same aloofness that one imagines the vodka-sipping Romanovs might have had watching Russian peasants wrestle bears in the town square). Hammer curator Ali Subotnick, a longtime genuine GH fan and among the very first to arrive, must be the only crossover audience member alive.

Left: Artist Paul Farance, Franco body double Brad Standley, and dealer Shirley Morales. Right: Artist Kalup Linzy.

Despite being in celebrity-saturated LA and having a chronic case of jadedness, many in the art crowd followed Franco with secretly star-struck eyes as he strolled about debonairly between takes, smiling like a suave politician you’ve been hypnotized to vote for. Linzy (dressed in his usual performance drag) was the crowd fluffer, entertaining the restless soapies during long, boring bouts of downtime. Deitch sauntered onto the set in time to rehearse his lines and proudly work the photo op, cameras flashing and glinting off his signature circle frames, like two hollow gold coins. As the shoot wore on and the night grew late, the few artists, writers, and dealers that remained wandered around the set, gleefully inspecting Franco’s ersatz AbEx-meets-graffiti prop art, including one area that looked more like my orthodontist’s waiting room than like any believable gallery. Meanwhile, Franco had the night’s whole whirlwind filmed as part of his behind-the-scenes documentation of his GH performance project, to be shown later at MoCA.

The art crowd’s barely concealed confusion and skepticism were palpable in the frequency of raised eyebrows, worried looks, and sarcastic offhand remarks mumbled through sighs. Since the LA art community has been anticipating Deitch’s arrival at the helm of the city’s preeminent contemporary art institution with a fair dose of apprehension, “Soap at MoCA” was watched closely and cautiously as his first act in office. (Several invitees purportedly chose not to come in protest of spectacle.)

Trepidations aside, the exhilarating highlight of the night was the stunningly simple but gasp-worthy stunt in which first-time stuntman and Franco body double Brad Standley threw himself over the side of the three-story building to his presumptive death below. For one climactic moment, the three divergent spectator groups merged, boundaries dissolved, and suspicions relaxed; extras, artists, and soapies all looked up together as one seriously captivated audience. “Don’t kill me! I know where the baby is!” Franco exclaimed dramatically at one point during the shooting. Interrupting the hushed silence that followed, someone near the fifty-foot projection of his laughing face could be heard asking, “Is this art?” The moment was so perfect and perfectly ridiculous that it didn’t even matter whether it was or wasn’t, but if we had to answer, we’d say yes, because who could say no to that face?

Left: Collector Brenda R. Potter, General Hospital's Steve Burton, and UCLA Hammer curator Ali Subotnick. Right: A set.