James Franco: Psycho Nacirema

The Hollywood Actor and Artist Pens an Exclusive Essay on His Latest Hitchcock-Inspired Work

As James Franco continues his multidisciplinary approach to creativity with his collaboration with Scottish artist Douglas Gordon, Psycho Nacirema, at London’s Pace Gallery, he takes us through why he looked to the Hitchcock classic in today’s short. The American A-lister has also penned an exclusive piece for NOWNESS, delving into the inspirations behind his twisted, cinematic installation.

Film into Art in Psycho Nacirema

Psycho Nacirema is a show that builds on projects and conversations that I have shared with Douglas Gordon. I’ve known Douglas for over six years; we first met in Avignon where he was having a retrospective. I was exposed to the wide range of his work. As someone who worked professionally in the film business, what struck me most was his appropriation of film and film forms into his work. He has undoubtedly been influenced by Hollywood and avant-garde film throughout his career, but this influence has not (yet) resulted in conventional narrative features. Instead he has used the influence to create structurally and conceptually dense work of various forms: film, video, photography, performance, music, sculpture, text, etc. Seeing all of this blew me away, it showed me that film, the world I was immersed in, could be used for results other than traditional narrative films.

For the past century, film and television have dominated popular culture. Moving pictures are what we turn to, more often than not, to reflect ourselves to ourselves. They have defined us, at least they have defined Americans, for better or worse, because of the power and pervasiveness of their images. Thus, partially influenced by my exposure to Douglas’s work (as well as the work of Cindy Sherman, Paul McCarthy, Richard Prince, Dan Colen, Nate Lowman, Isaac Julien, Mike Kelley, Chris Burden, Jeff Koons), I was drawn to the idea of using film as a source for other kinds of work. Using film as a starting point would provide me with a common base that many people could relate to. In addition, film and television techniques and procedures of production, distribution and interpretation have woven themselves into our everyday lives, so I also saw potential for a more meta kind of work to derive from the meditation on the practice of filmmaking.

I had worked with Douglas and several other artists on Rebel at MoCA in LA, a large collaborative show based on the Nicholas Ray film, Rebel Without a Cause. That project used the film as a starting place from which to branch off into many different kinds of projects based on different aspects of the film. Douglas worked on scenes that had been intended for the original film but were never shot because they were too violent. Douglas reinterpreted them with Dennis Hopper’s (a cast member in the original film) son, Henry Hopper and made an incredible video/sculpture/installation called “Henry Rebel.” With Psycho Nacirema, I wanted to build on the ideas that were explored in Rebel

I am interested in performance and reality, and the differences and similarities between the two. I feel we are all performers in the sense that our personalities and the way we live our lives are the result of choices and the ways we choose to react to our circumstances. Of course things are acted upon us, but the way we react always defines character. What we do in life is just a more sophisticated, open ended and subtle version of decisions that actors make when performing in front of a camera. The show explores all this by breaking down barriers between these two spheres, performance and reality. 

The show also isolates and makes discrete all the different aspects of film, which in a narrative film come together to make a tight and inextricable web: I speak of set construction, backdrop painting, acting, film and video themselves, music. All of these things are made discrete so that they can once again stand on their own as pieces. So, the set is a sculpture, a video is a sculpture, paintings become performances, etc. Once each aspect is made discrete then they are all brought together in the big installation so that one is immersed.

I love that Douglas comes from the art world, but looks to the film world for inspiration, while I come from the film world and look to the art world. We meet in the middle of both, have fun, and then cross over to the opposite sides.  

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Conversations (5)

  • Elizabeth Sullivan
    One question, is that supposed to be Charlie Chaplin or Hitler at the end? Hitler definitely qualified as a psycho.
  • kkurman
    i keep wanting to give Franco his due in being able to maintain his position within the "cult of celebrity" while pursuing his inquiries into art. But somehow he continually manages to disappoint with these banal indulgences. Its a pity 'cause we know he's smart, well read and certainly self-aware. Do we really believe that he would have gotten this show at the Pace, with these juvenile, art school high jinx, if he weren't "James Franco"? Its unfortunate, and unavoidable, I suppose. He will continue to be collected and written about and documented, as here, but in a way he seems to have missed even the opportunity to parlay his celebrity into into a winning hand, for that Angelyne seems to have beat him to it.
    • Posted By kkurman
    • July 08, 2013 at 3:20PM
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  • Atasi
    I loved this form of art from James!!! He is a mastermind that will keep you in the last legs in whatever he chooses to do next. Such a mystery of directing these progressive projects in the 21st century he did a fine job with this art!!
    • Posted By Atasi
    • July 08, 2013 at 2:43PM
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  • brettra
    ...honestly!?! this opens with him considering seriously his supposed subversion of a 'sign' that has signified horror and depravity at a remarkably complex level for so long. does he actually believe he has made a profound statement here? beyond choosing an excellent source to slather juvenile excretions upon, all offerings look to be no more than a cluttering and cocking up of what still is a cuttingly precise film. the crude, uncensored scratchings found on the insides of mens-room bathroom stalls are often more curious, unexpected, revealing and original than any mark or image i see posited here.
  • annacarisma
    at first this looked like it would be idiotic...but it's really great! minus the painted word 'master'...
    • Posted By annacarisma
    • July 08, 2013 at 6:04AM
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    Inside Rebel: Part One

    Our Exclusive Look Behind the Scenes at James Franco's All-Star LA Show

    Actor, artist and curator James Franco reveals the genesis of his visceral art-film crossover exhibition, REBEL, in the first installment of filmmaker Matt Black’s two-part exposé. Inspired by the mythology surrounding Nicholas Ray’s pioneering 1955 film Rebel Without a Cause, the show at LA’s MOCA includes collaborations with a stellar cast of leading contemporary artists, including Paul and Damon McCarthy, Aaron Young, Harmony Korine, Ed Ruscha, Terry Richardson and Douglas Gordon. Working closely with Franco, the artists reinterpreted and remixed the main themes, scenes and tragic events of the original—from the automotive death of lead actor James Dean to the rumored affair between the 44-year-old Ray and 16-year-old starlet Natalie Wood—all set inside a replica of LA’s iconic Chateau Marmont. “James created a relationship with each of the contributors; he is the narrative in between them,” says Black. “It's almost as if James was making a movie and cast them as actors to fulfill all the roles.” Franco plays a central part in the show’s take on Ray’s teen-angst masterpiece. In Korine's short paying homage to the movie's famous knife fight outside the Griffith Observatory, Franco faces off with a BMX-riding posse of naked female gangsters. For another, he had tattoo artist Mark Mahoney carve the name of late actor Brad Renfro, who passed away in 2008 at the age of 26 from a heroin overdose, into his shoulder with a switchblade.

    See James Franco and Harmony Korine discussing their collaboration in Part Two of Inside Rebel, here.

    (Read More)

    Inside Rebel: Part Two

    James Franco and Harmony Korine Open Up on Filming a Naked All-Girl BMX Gang

    In the second part of Matt Black's exposé, artist-actor James Franco talks through the tangled mythology of Rebel Without a Cause and how it shaped his art-film mash-up at MOCA. Featuring the likes of Paul and Damon McCarthy, Aaron Young, Harmony Korine, Ed Rusha, Terry Richardson and Douglas Gordon, REBEL explores the legends embroiling Nicholas Ray’s 1955 epoch defining tale of teenage rebellion within a twisted replica of the film's spiritual home, Chateau Marmont. Ray was living at the cult LA hotel when he first encountered James Dean—who turned up un-introduced, unannounced and accompanied by gothic starlet Vampira to perform two full backflip somersaults as an impromptu audition for the role that would immortalize him as a teen icon. “It became about creating the Chateau Marmont, for the artists and for Franco himself. Everything was set up to see all the films play in that same world,” explains Black. “When you see it all together, using the Chateau at the center, it takes on a different energy.” Riffing off the movie’s intrigues, Paul and Damon McCarthy replicated Ray’s Bungalow to re-enact his and Wood’s affair, while Aaron Young smashed a 1950 Ford Custom Tudor Coupe onto the desert floor from 80 feet up to mark Dean’s death in a fatal car crash barely a month before the film was released.

    See James Franco explaining the genesis of REBEL in Part One of Inside Rebel, here.

    (Read More)

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