Making Waves at Costume National

Anyone who has lived in New York long enough can walk through SoHo and play the game. Donna Karen’s DKNY used to be Sonnabend and the Leo Castelli Gallery, Ellie Tahari used to be the Mary Boone Gallery, Adidas the Gagosian Gallery, and so on. But, last month, if you arrived at Ennio Capasa’s flagship store Costume National on Greene Street (in the former home of Moss and before that Metro Pictures, where major names like Cindy Sherman, Mike Kelley, Sherrie Levine, and Richard Prince started their careers in the 80′s), you might have noticed a pleasant link to the space’s past. Among the bold looks of New Wave-No Wave-Dark Wave, the featured Fall 2012 collection, was a very curated art exhibition that included works by Tobias Wong, Aaron Young, and that feverish Hollywood “heartthrob” James Franco.

Curated by Natacha Polaert, who cited the physical space as her initial inspiration, the show, titled New No Dark Wave, focused on “ideas of memory, permutation and perception.” Many of the mediums chosen for the exhibition were fashion friendly and worked well among the modernist clothes: video art, diamonds, photographs, and Linda, the very naturalistic, overly emotional mannequin, I recognized from this year’s Frieze Art Fair on Randall’s Island.

The mannequin, which is really a sculpture by artist Daniel Firman, was situated halfway back into the space. Walking by, I did a double take, for a moment thinking I’d passed a very angry customer, or a crazy person. But, I immediately recognized my gut reaction – it was the same jolt I’d experienced walking by Galerie Perrotin’s booth at Frieze with Lea, also from the artist’s Attitudes series. For a moment, Lea and I were reunited. Only this time LindaLea’s hotter cousin if you will, seemed even more upset. Maybe it was the monochromatic contrast between her dark clothes and the light space. She was leaning head first into the white wall, wearing all black clothing from the collection—black tights, black skirt, and a black top—well all black except for the periwinkle sweater that covered her head and face. It was hard to tell whether she was taking the sweater off, putting it on, or just throwing a tantrum. In any event, nothing is more exciting to photograph than Linda, be it at Frieze or at the Costume National flagship.

James Franco “New Film Still #21” (2012), Courtesy of the artist.

But, back to the New No Dark Wave exhibition. Continuing farther into the space, visitors were confronted with more surprises, say, in the dressing room, where customers found they could watch James Franco while trying on clothes. Looping every hour on the hour in the small curtained room was James Franco’s 40 Minutes, the actor-turned-academic-turned-artist-turned-Motown singer’s video collaboration with director Travis Mathews (who thank goodness wears one hat). The video represents what Mathews and Franco imagined to have existed in a censored 40 minutes of William Friedkin’s 1980 film, Cruising, in which Al Pacino played an undercover police detective who goes into a gay nightclub to find a serial killer.

A feature-length version of the film will have a festival life beginning in 2013, but even the short version drew quite a stir with sexual moments and a very honest portrayal of what it was like to remake the movie.

Franco has a history of being provocative with his mysterious sexuality, but his 40 minutes explores way more than sex and the “lost art” of cruising. Granted, in the video, you do get to watch a bunch of men stare into the camera as they audition for the nightclub extra roles. But, there is a sophisticated political pulse to this video, one that addresses both old issues and new ones. This is because of Franco’s decision to include scenes about the making of the video. Actor Val Lauren, who played Pacino’s character in the Franco-Mathews version, is captured in this footage during an almost painful bout of discomfort when given his directions and leather costume. He stands outside the studio, chain smoking, shaking, looking pale. Anyone who went to acting school won’t be able to watch this without hearing the voice of that one crazy, but genius, free-spirited method teacher who encouraged the class to be free and take risks because you’re not an actor if you do not take risks. You know, that get-naked-in-front-of-the-class-to-be-free-if-you-have-to kind of drama teacher, the one who calls you actors, even outside the classroom. “We wanted to revisit for many reasons, one of which was to celebrate the unapologetic queerness of the material, the anti-normative stance that the men in the old leather bars embraced,” said Franco. Maybe that’s what upset Val Lauren, but his discomfort was useful in the film’s narrative, which brings up a whole host of old political issues. “The original film was very controversial, for several reasons,” said James Franco, “It was a time when the gay rights movement was still incipient and a movie about murder set in the gay club life of New York seemed to make unfortunate connections between gay life styles and murder.” Franco says that since then, the film has been accepted by the gay community, “It was recently played at Cannes,” he said.

Tobias Wong “Casper” 2003 Crystal and paraffin oil Collection SFMOMA, loan of Inform Interiors, © Estate of Tobias Wong
and Daniel Firman “Linda” (2012) Résine, vêtements / Resin, clothes 177 x 36 x 42 cm / 69 3/4 x 14 1/4 x 16 1/2 inches. Unique. Courtesy of Galerie Perrotin, Hong Kong & Paris.

On the opposite side, Franco’s artistic vision continued with his New Film Stills, a play on some very famous Untitled Film Stills by an artist named Cindy Sherman (ever hear of her?). Franco did a great job mimicking those film stills, placing himself, bearded and all, in the frames. According to the curator, Sherman was not angry when she learned of his remakings – in fact she was flattered. But, here’s my question: are Franco’s film stills photographs? Are they self-portraits? (Cindy Sherman does not consider herself a photographer, nor does she consider her work self-portraiture.)

Either way, Mr. Franco doesn’t stop with the film stills for this exhibition. Why would he, when he could undergo even more art and more cross-dressing one wall over in Woman’s World, a video in which he portrays a character based on Graham Rawle’s 2008 novel of the same name, constructed out of 40,000 scraps from 1960s British womens’ magazines. After this exhibition, I have concluded that there’s no question Mr. Franco is a real artist. The only question I have is whether he’s a real human. How does he find the time to do it all?

James Franco and Travis Mathews “James Franco’s 40 Minutes” (2012), Courtesy of the artists.

Moving along, other works in the exhibition included the Dada “paraconceptual” works of the late Canadian artist Tobias Wong, such as Killer Diamond Engagement Ring (2004) and Casper (2003), as well as Bortolami and Gagosian artist Aaron Young’s S.P.Q.R., an image of the Colosseum, “where the artist kicks a video camera,” according to the exhibition’s curator.

Lastly, there was a reminder of yet another kind of faded SoHo, one that existed before Metro Pictures, in the 60′s, during the height of the avant-garde. And it was in the form of a single sentence handwritten across the wall on a single line by the award-winning French author Frédéric Beigbeder. It reads: “Please forgive me. It’s the first time I write something directly in English and it’s the first time I write something on the wall of a fashion boutique. I believe this sentence will be read by a lot of pretty girls. It gives me a terrible pressure. I can’t just write all the stupid things that come to my mind. I have to be attractive and funny and so cool. Right now you are probably reading this, standing up in this weird fashionable environment and you might feel embarrassed to be staring at a wall for a few minutes. So please do me a favor: touch your hair, scratch your beard, take off your glasses, look at the ceiling, caress your behind, do anything to make the other people in this room think that this text is very deep and interesting and clever. And now: laugh very loud, especially if you are a famous actress. Thank you very much. It helps. I feel better now. I have the impression that something happened between us. Can you please say “waow”? PLEASE. It can really make a difference for me if you say “waow” in front of a wall in a Costume National store. Your “waow”, right now, can totally change my image in America. But you don’t have to. I mean, if you are still standing here, it already means a lot to me. I am very grateful for the effort you just made. Reading this empty thing until the end makes me love you. It means I am not alone. Ok, this game is over. Some people call it literature. They should see a doctor.” – Frédéric Beigbeder”

Top image:  Daniel Firman “Linda” (2012) Résine, vêtements / Resin, clothes 177 x 36 x 42 cm / 69 3/4 x 14 1/4 x 16 1/2 inches. Unique. Courtesy of Galerie Perrotin, Hong Kong & Paris. Images of the installations © Kenny Komer.


  1. Posted October 29, 2012 at 7:35 am | Permalink


    Keep these articles coming!!! I feel very in touch with hip NYC. All the acknowledgements for photos and quotes. How do you get all that while on the subway?
    I hope you survive the storm!
    Please remind Sumner to call me.


  2. Posted December 28, 2012 at 10:24 am | Permalink

    I really like the combination of fashion and art, specially when this is combine a quite refine and minimalistic stetic.

    Simple, plain, and playing with the contrast in white give to any piece a sofistication and elegancy.

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