James Franco playing Cindy Sherman and........fails

Everybody Is Playing Somebody Else Here
‘James Franco: New Film Stills’ Arrives at Pace Gallery


James Franco’s “New Film Still #35” (2013). Credit 2014 James Franco, Pace Gallery

Perhaps James Franco should just stick to acting. He remains embarrassingly clueless when it comes to art.

In his latest art world foray, following previous outings in galleries and commissions for Performa, Mr. Franco is filling a celebrity artist slot at Pace Gallery, similar to the one that Bob Dylan occupies at Gagosian. His Pace debut is “New Film Stills,” a series of his photographs that restages some of Cindy Sherman’s seminal “Untitled Film Stills” of 1977-80 with what is supposed to be respectful transparency but comes across as uncomprehending cynicism.

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. 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.

Maybe he sees what he’s doing as reverse feminism, an act of empathic dislocation — which is the argument made by the poet Frank Bidart in the catalog essay. Mainly, we sense Mr. Franco once more playing himself, dipping a toe simultaneously in the waters of art and demi-drag.

And it only gets worse. In addition to reproducing the 25 or so images presented in the show, the catalog contains 65 excruciatingly sophomoric poems written by Mr. Franco in reaction to nearly all the Sherman film stills. Often written from the woman’s point of view, these are either printed on their own or paired with the appropriate Franco do-over image.

The deep content here, beneath the entitled narcissism, is a confused desperation that seems to drive Mr. Franco’s pursuit of visual art. It’s hard not to feel some sympathy for him, while also wishing that someone or something would make him stop.

“James Franco: New Film Stills” is on view through May 3 at Pace Gallery, 508 West 25th Street, Chelsea; (212) 989-4258, pacegallery.com.