Kenny Schachter on Why Gstaad Is the Perfect Context for James Franco’s ‘Resort Paintings’

Franco’s charisma is the perfect draw for the heavy hitting Gstaad-ites.

Collage by Kenny Schachter. Image: Courtesy of Kenny Schachter
Collage by Kenny Schachter. Image: Courtesy of Kenny Schachter
James Franco, Bird 13 (2015).Image: Courtesy of Siegfried Contemporary

James Franco, Bird 13 (2015).
Image: Courtesy of Siegfried Contemporary

Hello Magazine, Art World Edition
After my recent article on the art and art scene in St. Moritz, returning with a piece on Gstaad, I am beginning to resemble an upstart art world Taki Theodoracopulos the social swirl chronicler, who happens to reside in Gstaad, the jet-setting abode that has at one point or another been home to Liz Taylor, Sir Roger Moore, Balthus, Roman Polanski, Steve Wynn, George Soros, and loads of others. But when a friend called with similar aged kids and offered—an invite is an invite—I would have been an idiot not to seize such a guesting opportunity in high season and jumped at the chance. Gstaad and St. Moritz, though both German speaking, are poles apart geographically and in other ways.

London-based Swiss art advisor Andreas Siegfried opened a pop-up exhibit, “KooKoo,” of paintings of birds by James Franco on February 6, at Chalet Mittelgässli (temporary venue belongs to a locally based collector) in nearby Saanen (a stone’s throw from Gstaad). The town is awash with art aficionados, in fact the world is crawling with them. And today, all seasons are art season.

Other galleries in Gstaad include the stalwart Patricia Low Gallery, where I curated a show two years ago in 2014 as well as Hauser & Wirth who recently rented the former (still infamous) Gunter Sachs house. The house, which is open by appointment, is well worth the effort to visit if you can.

On a day of nasty weather before the evening kicked off, I rented a pair of spiked snowshoes, took a deep-powder power walk (say that quickly 10 times) amidst the incredible forested terrain and proceeded to trip over myself till ridden with blood; it was not the first time I’ve proven my own worst enemy.

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Image: Courtesy of Kenny Schachter

The Gallerists
Gunter (Sexy) Sachs famously declared that he never worked a day in his life yet Manuela and Iwan Wirth have already put his historic house to work in wondrous ways. It sounds like fiction, in a performative art world kind of style, but Manuela was knitting in front of the fireplace when I entered the art-laden grand chalet.

There were paintings by Philip Guston from the newly represented estate, standout Jean Dubuffets, a raw, unpainted Alexander Calder mobile, an early, unexpected Piet Mondrian landscape and a handful of unfamiliar Swiss modernists; just the kind of local discoveries you’d long to find in such a venue.

As striking as the art was, even more striking was the Hauser & Wirth familial generosity and graciousness in opening their rooms, even if not to the hoi polloi—though you’d be hard-pressed to find any in these environs. Entering one bedroom I encountered a floor-to-ceiling installation of Louise Bourgeois drawings as well as Iwan’s mother-in-law, Ursula, trying to locate her mobile phone.

With various staff and directors pitched up for the week, this is a white shoe art commune and somehow the sweetest thing I’ve seen—a humble-ish hallmark of walking (and sleeping) the walk. You can’t combine art and life further and I was astounded. If you can, go!

I’d be remiss not to mention the pool with its accompanying love cave and a killer view (of the palatial Palace Hotel), with its glass walls. Carved out beneath the bar above, only accessible by an underwater path is an orgy-scaled expanse of mattresses and pillows concealed at the press of a button by a shield of running water. Yeah, baby! But about the only action expected in the coming years is transactional.

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James Franco, New Film Still #21 (2013).
© 2014 Pace Gallery, All Rights Reserved. © the artist; all images © Pace Gallery.

James Franco and the Plight of the Actor/Artist/Writer/Teacher/Musician/Poet
James Franco’s show “KooKoo,” per the press release, “can be seen as a comment on Franco’s multi-faceted film personas as well as his own real life character which is often provocative and deranged while at the same time enchanting and witty. His paintings are humorous, they are his way of responding to the everyday life experiences he encounters as an acclaimed actor.”

I’ve fallen hard for George Walker Bush (though, admittedly, he was not exactly likeable in the past) during his first public speech in eight years stumping for his brother Jeb on the campaign trail the other day when he declared, “As a real shock to people, I’ve become an oil painter. But let me assure you I know that the signature is worth more than the painting.” Bush has out-charmed Franco of late though having behaved more unhinged than the actor when he was in office.

With the same ingredients—paint and canvas, what is it about James Franco’s art that feels different? Instead of a signature, in a Franco work, you are buying the essence of celebrity. Franco put it best himself in a charity promo video. “You may know me as an actor, writer, teacher, musician, poet,” he said, “but I’m also a painter.” He’s out-slashed Slash. As teacher/curator/writer/amateur artist/art-and-car dealer myself, I’m hardly in a position to criticize multi-tasking in extremis. Though, between art as artifice and full-time job—or charging $8,000-$10,000 a pop, as Franco does, for your paintings—it’s a hard concept to buy into. The tiny room, filled to the brim with the small Franco canvases, was supposed to resemble a cuckoo clock but looked more like a commercial studio engaged in cereal box studies.

 

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Collage by Kenny Schachter.
Image: Courtesy of Kenny Schachter

 

I won’t get into Franco’s many like-minded peers, from Snoop Dogg to Shia LaBoeuf. And let us not forget the art world equivalents (crossing over into non-art world terrain). There was Cindy Sherman whose 1997 directorial feature Office Killer, a “comedy-horror” that was more like a snuff film, which managed to simultaneously kill off her movie ambitions. And Robert Longo whose Johnny Mnemonic elicited laughs in all the wrong places including during the opening credits.

Historically, dilettantism had a positive connotation rather than having the stigma it does today. Yet there is no accounting for the James Franco bio, which is an artwork unto itself. Not Jackson Pollock, Phillip Guston, Ad Reinhardt, or Franz Kline died with as stellar a resume as the 37-year-old, even accounting for the enhanced speed of existence nowadays. New York’s MoMA, London’s Tate, the Venice Biennial, Gagosian and Pace galleries all have played supporting roles to the actor. You can’t blame James for grabbing what’s offered—but who’s doing the offering at the institutional level?

Regarding the for-profits, it’s a free world but zero-sum nevertheless; every show allotted to a non-full-time practitioner is one less opportunity for an artist with no other side gigs. In the case of Franco, it’s a matter of celeb infatuation and bringing in the suckers (present company included).

Though I was kindly asked (despite my known propensity to vent), I didn’t show up to the dinner billed as a dialogue between Wim Wenders, Donata Wenders, Setsuko Klossowski de Rola (Balthus’s widow, in whose house the party was held) and James Franco. The topic was “Wenders’ films with Franco, versus Franco’s art, versus Balthus, and Setsuko’s passion for birds.” The tie-in (more on ties below) for Franco was his 13 paintings of birds. How’s that for random? Take a look at the website and decide for yourself; they range from competent to comical. Franco’s birds look like a cross between Hunt Slonem and Damien Hirst’s hand-painted paintings (another kind of celebrity daubing). As of this writing, nine of Franco’s paintings have been sold.

While Kanye West may have titled his latest release The Life of Pablo (and you can be certain it wasn’t drug kingpin Escobar he’s exalting), Picasso’s life wasn’t filled with TV shows and temper tantrums; or poetry, preening, and philosophy classes. A little crazy and imperious he might have been, but nothing touches Picasso’s herculean, unrelenting art-making day in and day out. It was neither act nor affectation.

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The pool with the “love cave” at Gunter Sachs’s historic home in Gstaad.
Image: Courtesy of Kenny Schachter

The Collector
On Valentine’s Day, I was summoned, solo, to an ultra exclusive mountain chalet dinner after the intended invitee suffered a skiing mishap and the host happened to “like my blog a lot that day.” Okay. I was asked if I had a tuxedo and bow tie or dark suit (the kind of spur-of-the-moment request that happens only in Gstaad!). I told him I was lucky to have a (quite nice, if I don’t say so myself) beige wool ensemble, and borrowed a black tie from a guy working at the house I was staying in. Similar to St. Moritz, the dress code is as far from my standard issue Adidas tracksuits as you get. My response was met with the request to wear a jacket and bow tie that would be left at the entrance of the house for me.

As the art collection is legendary, I’d have worn a tutu to have a gander. When I entered on the floor below the festivities, I was immediately identified by staff and told of the impending change that I was expected to make. I brushed off the overtures; who wants to sport someone else’s guest jacket? I made my way into the house filled chock-a-block with art, kind of like how I live but with (significantly) better art.

Within a heartbeat I was tracked down by security and told to don the don’s jacket and bow tie. I put on the jacket but resisted the clip-on tie; wouldn’t you? Besides, I was wearing a black tie, just not a silly bow version. Not long before trying to inconspicuously mingle in my mismatched beige suit paints and black satin lapelled smoking jacket (it’s no easy feat to look beyond foolish), I was cornered again and compelled (in no uncertain terms) to exchange ties.

So many art world-ers, in as deep as this collector (he’s no selling spec-u-lector, not close!) squirrel the stuff away safely out of sight and the purview of the tax collector. What made this visit (with conditions) so worthwhile was that the VAT alone must have amounted to a masterpiece worthy number. How extraordinary and refreshing to finally see a collector living with something other than a persistent storage bill.

 

Franco in Gstaad
We live in a constantly rebooting entertainment-driven universe. I understand the impetus for hosting a magnetic actor-impresario in a gallery. As a character in the 1960’s counterculture musical Hair put it, “Well, I wouldn’t kick Mick Jagger out of my bed, but uh, I’m not a homosexual, no.” Franco’s charisma is the perfect draw for the heavy hitting Gstaad-ites and many beyond. I like Siegfried and admit to having exhibited artists in the past for other than entirely genuine reasons (in the temporary exhibits I used to frequently organize). Gstaad is the perfect context for these resort paintings that just as easily could have appeared on a Bahamas-bound cruise ship. But I hope they’re not aspiring to be much more.


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