James Franco – Psycho Nacirema

James Franco presented by Douglas Gordon
Psycho Nacirema
PACE, London
June 6th-August 3rd, 2013

by Joanna Orland

I’m not normally the Loose Lips art critic, but somehow I found myself along with our very own Susanna Jones, at James Franco’s London debut exhibition, Psycho Nacirema at the Pace gallery in London.  James Franco is a man of many talents, but is certainly most famous for his Hollywood acting career.  One of his other many talents is the visual arts.  Most recently he collaborated with artist Douglas Gordon on LA exhibition Rebel, where Franco examined James Dean’s performance in Rebel Without a Cause.

Continuing on from Rebel, Psycho Nacirema uses multimedia installations and presents a mise-en-scène of director Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 thriller Psycho, remodeling the physical set of the Bates Motel and intertwining this with the 1920’s Fatty Arbuckle manslaughter scandal.  It greatly helps to watch Hitchcock’s Psycho, and to read up on the Arbuckle scandal before attending this exhibition.

Franco’s Bates Motel recreation of installations beckons the audience to become a participating character in the plot, with the mock set available to explore.  Franco has put himself in his exhibition, assuming the role of Psycho victim Marion Crane, recreating projected scenes and also using portraits of him as the character.  One could argue that this is a reflection of his concept of forcing the audience to become a participant and project themselves as the characters of Marion Crane and Norman Bates.  Does he represent the audience, or is it pure vanity?  It’s hard to tell.

The Fatty Arbuckle scandal comes into play in order to interplay reality with fiction, attempting to have the audience address how cinema is entrenched in the modern collective consciousness.  The exhibition’s final room solely focuses on the Arbuckle scandal, using graphic visuals in a four-way projected film that shows a re-enactment of the alleged events that took place at the party where Arbuckle was found with Virginia Rappe.  Rappe died four days later, allegedly due to Arbuckle raping and crushing her in an act of violence.  Arbuckle was acquitted and later found not guilty.

As James Franco is a jack of all trades, it can be a bit difficult to take his art seriously.  Our expectations were low, especially as Rebel was received to less than favourable reviews.  When we arrived at Pace London and into Psycho Nacirema, we were aghast to discover the boldness and ambition of this exhibition.  The sets are grand, the detail rather interesting.  It has the essence of the Los Angeles Modern Art scene which once thrived in the 1960’s, but certainly with a modern twist and audaciousness that was likely frowned upon back in the day.  In spite of its grandiosity, Psycho Nacirema does fall short of fully impressing.  Perhaps if this were LA, we would have been less skeptical and would have embraced the superficial.  But in London, we are spoilt for choice and experience overexposure of the arts.  There is so much art and culture on display daily that something has to be really special to stand out.

Psycho Nacirema does stand out, but it doesn’t quite have that attention to detail, deeper meaning or emotional engagement with the audience that other similar exhibitions have achieved.  It feels very light in spite of its dark subject matter, and we grasped for something more.  Having said that, our visit to Psycho Nacirema had us discussing, pondering and even researching Psycho and Fatty Arbuckle, trying to come up with our own conclusions of what it all means and why Franco chose to depict things as he did.  And isn’t the main purpose of Art in general to provoke a reaction?  In that case – job well done James Franco.  We are confused, yet intrigued.

Could James Franco be a master of all trades and not just a jack?  Well, he’s not quite there yet, but perhaps one day…

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