Art review: James Franco's 'Rebel' has cause but little effect

A motorcycle lies in a swimming pool, in James Franco's 'Rebel' installation for MOCA. (Christopher Knight/Los Angeles Times/MCT)

A motorcycle lies in a swimming pool, in James Franco's "Rebel" installation for MOCA. (Christopher Knight/Los Angeles Times/MCT)

LOS ANGELES - James Franco's "Rebel" fills a Hollywood furniture warehouse with movie and TV-style stage sets, sculptural installations and video projections - some made by Franco, many made by other artists.

Inspired by "Rebel Without a Cause," the celebrated 1955 movie, as well as by the tabloid mythology that almost instantly grew up around actor James Dean's most well-known film, "Rebel" suffers a predictable fate: It withers by inevitable comparison.

Art that seeks to appropriate, honor, deconstruct or otherwise make reference to an icon of earlier art faces a very high hurdle - namely, the icon itself. Unless the artist is already established as significant, in which case much is forgiven, the new work must be good. "Rebel," extravagant but dull, isn't.

Time spent in the blowzy exhibition, organized for the Museum of Contemporary Art by director Jeffrey Deitch, would be more profitably spent watching the terrific movie. "Rebel Without a Cause" is an astringent meditation on middle-class, male-adolescent ennui in the wake of World War II trauma. The movie and its legends are a formal template for Franco's installation.

The immersive work is collaborative, like a movie or TV show, "directed by" and "starring" Franco, a talented actor who once played James Dean in a howlingly bad television movie. It includes contributions from artists Douglas Gordon, Harmony Korine, Paul and Damon McCarthy, Galen Pehrson, Terry Richardson, Ed Ruscha and Aaron Young. No female artists are included, although women do appear as subjects.

The enormous set, which suggests a nighttime suburban landscape, was constructed by the advertising and media company Commonwealth Projects. (If it were a movie, incidentally, "Rebel" would likely be rated R for sex and violence, the mildest of which are scores of scattered blow-up dolls and the filmed castration of a live bull.) Over-produced filler featuring acres of plastic plants, it mostly separates uninteresting videos.

A crashed car, recalling both a fatality in the movie and Dean's own cause of death, stands on end as a totem at the entry, turning up again inside in a snippet of video. Color video-windows inserted within black-and-white projections evoke movie director Nicholas Ray's charge to reshoot in color several scenes already filmed in black and white, once Warner Bros. realized Dean's star potential and upped the B-movie's budget.

A ghost-white motorcycle resting at the bottom of a small backyard swimming pool summons Marlon Brando, the actor first considered for Dean's role, and "The Wild Ones," the 1953 biker film that opened the floodgate of juvenile delinquency movies. A shortvideo shows Franco having the first name of the lateactor Brad Renfro carved into his arm with a switchblade, also displayed nearby; Renfro was a troubled kid who, in 2008, died young like many in the earlier movie's cast (Dean, Sal Mineo, Nick Adams - even Natalie Wood).

There's much more, all of it along these layered referential lines, but combined to scant effect. References to other gifted artists, among them Mike Kelley, Charles Ray and Ryan Trecartin, also pile up.

Pastiche doesn't quite describe it. Dryly conventional does. The venerable source movie, advancing now toward senior citizen age, is a Cinema Old Master. "Rebel" reconceives "Rebel Without a Cause" as a hothouse flower. That might correctly characterize rebellion's impotence in a celebrity-focused corporate culture, but as a consequence the show feels at once empty and stuffed.

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