Art critic shames James Franco’s new photo exhibit in epic takedown

Eric Pfeiffer
The Sideshow
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New York Times art critic Roberta Smith has a wish for James Franco: “that someone or something would make him stop.”

The actor and multitasking artist was singled out by Smith after seeing his new photography exhibit, “New Film Stills,” which debuted at the Pace Gallery. In the exhibit, Franco dresses in various stages of drag in a detailed homage to Cindy Sherman’s “Untitled Film Stills.”

“Perhaps James Franco should just stick to acting,” Smith writes. “He remains embarrassingly clueless when it comes to art.”

Franco is no stranger to the art world. The Academy Award-nominated actor’s seemingly insatiable and prolific palate includes forays into soap opera acting as the eponymous character “Franco,” fiction writing (“Palo Alto: Stories”), art installations and a full-length “reimagining” of Al Pacino’s 1980 film “Cruising,” which examined underground gay culture. Even in his mainstream comedy hits such as last year’s “This is the End,” Franco has been quick to lampoon his own work in other films such as “Spider-Man 3” and “Flyboys.”

During a 2013 Comedy Central Roast of Franco, his friends repeatedly joked, as did Franco himself, that the entire spectacle was nothing more than an experimental art project for the 36-year-old.

He's also no stranger to feuds with the New York Times. Just last week, Franco lashed out at Times theater critic Ben Brantley, calling him a "little bitch," after Brantley unfavorably reviewed Franco's performance in "Of Mice and Men."

But is Franco’s new photography exhibit truly deserving of such scorn from the paper?

Smith’s own spouse seems to think so. Writing in Vulture, Jerry Saltz declares, “at this point George W. Bush is actually a better artist than James Franco.”

For those unaware, the former president has famously devoted a significant portion of his postpresidential career to painting.

Saltz quotes Sherman herself, who says of Franco’s exhibit, “I can only be flattered. I don’t know that I can say it’s art, but I think it’s weirder that Pace would show them than that he would make them.”

Beyond the subjective value of the art itself, Smith seems most offended by her belief that Franco is diluting the feminist message of Sherman’s original photo essay:

“In her film stills, Ms. Sherman all but disappeared into various female stereotypes bestowed upon women by film: the new-to-the-city secretary, the put-upon housewife, the sex kitten, the single glamour girl,” Smith writes. “Mr. Franco, in contrast, is never less than Mr. Franco, his mustache, beard or hairy legs in full view, his face in an expression of studied vulnerability or simply a look-at-me smirk.”

But Smith might be even more troubled by one of Franco’s personal additions to his own photographs: “65 excruciatingly sophomoric poems” written by Franco.

You'll find no commentary on Franco’s skills as a poet here. After all, we were quite happy to publish a Franco original, “Obama in Asheville,” as part of our own one-off series of poems marking President Barack Obama’s second presidential inauguration. Writing about Obama there, Franco might have unintentionally (or maybe fully intentionally, if you believe his critics) been commenting on his own extracurricular artistic endeavors:

Then he said that my poem was a difficult task.
How to write about a man written about endlessly;
A man whom everyone has some sort of experience of;
How to write so that it’s not just for the converted.

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