JF Chen is a showroom of warehouse proportions in Hollywood, specializing in antique and mid-century modern furniture. From 15 May to 23 June, however, it serves as a sort of mausoleum for the embalmed body of old Hollywood — which, considering what "old" means in LA-years, is a body that looks all but identical to present-day Hollywood. If things seem like they're getting weird already, just wait.
JF Chen is hosting Rebel, a Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) exhibition conceived by James Franco and featuring an art-world power-house roster of participants: Douglas Gordon, Harmony Korine, Damon McCarthy, Paul McCarthy, Terry Richardson, Ed Ruscha, Aaron Young, and Franco himself. Additionally, until 7 July, The Box Gallery in downtown L.A., hosts Rebel Dabble Babble, an elaborate Paul and Damon McCarthy piece, which is an independent exhibition, with conceptual ties to Rebel. The broad concept quilting all of these artists and projects together is Nicholas Ray's 1955 film, Rebel Without a Cause, which, though it needs no introduction, continues to serve as a jam jar of sorts, preserving the real and imagined likenesses of bored, wayward, middle-class suburban youth in 1950s America. In the pantry, the jar might be labeled, "breaking point." That's one way of putting it, anyway. Rebel offers several others, deconstructing the movie and the rumors surrounding it limb for limb.
The effect is a nearly stroboscopic reiteration, and also a grand mutation, of associated iconic symbols — among them, the face of James Dean, the Hollywood sign, and very significantly, the Chateau Marmont, that luxury West Hollywood hotel known for celebrity parties and celebrity deaths alike. The famed Chateau is where Dean auditioned for his legendary role as the rebel, Jim Stark, and also where the off-screen drama (affairs, fights, he-said, she-said) took place during filming — specifically, the magic happened in Bungalow No.2. At The Box Gallery, Paul McCarthy and his son and collaborator, Damon, have recreated the bungalow, in the fenced-in lot behind the gallery. A far cry from "luxurious" or "sexy," this iteration of the Bungalow looks like a sick animal, tattered and maybe bloody, in a cage. There aren't necessarily telltale signs that tether this structure to Hollywood, or even Southern California; the "recreational" bungalow looks estranged next to a wall of graffiti, sandwiched by the cement and warehouses of this industrial area of downtown. In an artist's statement, Paul McCarthy describes this iteration of the bungalow as: "reminiscent of a head, a skull, a reliquary." Surely, the actual Chateau Marmont and its bungalows are representative of the "false" Los Angeles that creeps into collective memory by way of Hollywood film and fantasy. The actual Chateau is, in part, a representation of the Hollywood that poolside affairs and Bellinis built. But at The Box Gallery, the Chateau demonstrates just how at odds this kind of representation can be with the city that it, in fact, represents.
Back at JF Chen, Rebel looks more like a set than the McCarthys' potential "crime scene" — though sets and crime scenes are rarely mutually exclusive. Like the exhibition at The Box, the physical presence of Rebel is produced by the creative studio Commonwealth Projects. Overall, the impression is that of the famous Los Angeles paradox: an urban setting that feels suburban. One approaches a video installation, for example, as one might approach a single-family home in LA: part the vines, round the fence, pass the pool. There is both quaintness and danger in this immediacy. Take, for example, the round pool at the heart of the exhibition. I make my way close to the water, and I'm greeted with small talk by the (real) lifeguard on duty. Submerged underwater is a drowned motorcycle, bearing many associations — Marlon Brando, James Dean and Marilyn Monroe, and the nearby videos by Aaron Young (Grapevine and Ghost), among them. Fact, fantasy, recreation and the acknowledgement of risk (by way of lifeguard, and by way of motor-powered metaphor) meet in this one spot of the exhibition — at once cinematic and entirely quotidian. In Los Angeles, most closed doors are at street level. Perceived dangers can easily peep into living room windows, and see what's on living room televisions.
Rebel's setting could be Chateau Marmont, or it could be almost any Los Angeles neighborhood. The thing about Hollywood, about Los Angeles as a whole, is that, though an iconic city, it is the sum of anonymous parts. Unlike a street in Manhattan, which might be identified by its architecture and named buildings (such as the Chrysler), a street in Los Angeles rarely contains immediate reference points. Save for the Hollywood sign and a small number of other markers (including the Chateau Marmont's "coat of arms," which also makes a prominent appearance in Rebel), LA can disorient the human compass. Yes, this city has the ocean and the mountains, but this show is about what's in between. More specifically, it's about the manipulation of what's in between. LA, like an actor, can be dressed up and presented as a city that it isn't. Alternatively, the LA on film might be misinterpreted to be the LA off screen, just like an actor being mistaken for the character he plays. Fiction and nonfiction are confused further by the disputed territories between them: tabloid press, serious press, photography, maybe even art.
At the press preview of Rebel, I pick up an accompanying program, which includes an essay by James Franco titled Some James Dean Shit. In it, Franco, who played Dean in a 2001 televised biopic, writes that he has always been compared to the actor: "I was always told I looked like James Dean — well, after I got braces for my buckteeth and went through puberty." Franco's name and face is all over this exhibition. In Harmony Korine's video, Caput, he is wielding a machete; in Terry Richardson's photographs, he is dressed in drag; there he is, getting a tattoo of late actor Brad Renfro's name on his arm (James Franco, Brad Renfro Forever). But given the context and the primer, what we're seeing isn't just James Franco's face, but James Franco's face, which looks like James Dean's face. Since Dean's face appears almost as much in this show as Franco's, it's hard not to make the connection, or start rubbing one's eyes. Of course, these faces don't just belong to the actors, but also to the characters they're playing. Oddly, but surely, these faces belong to a viewing public, as well. They're part of public consciousness, and regarded as something along the lines of public property. The same goes for the images of Los Angeles, and more specifically "Hollywood," which dominate this show with their presence. If this is a present-day city playing a version of its older self — well then, it hasn't aged a bit. In Rebel, Hollywood, more than a place, is a character, a delusion, and, most importantly, a discrepancy. Like an actor playing a role: it is what it isn't.
Through 23 June 2012
941 North Highland Avenue, Los Angeles
Through 7 July 2012
Rebel Dabble Babble
The Box Gallery
805 Traction Avenue, Los Angeles