Thursday, October 23, 2014

James Franco's Gallery Show at Palo Alto High School

We attended the opening of Palo Alto High School's brand new Media Arts Center last weekend, and it featured James Franco's exhibition 'Yearbook Paintings' as well as his band Daddy's album 'Let  Me Get What I Want' played along with music videos created from movie shorts made by his mom's film students.

Franco's teacher, Esther Wojcicki, was there to introduce him, and to describe how the new center will feature video editing rooms, computer labs and recording areas for students to use while working on any of the school's seven publications. We were jealous, our time spent working on our high school's newspaper was decidedly more low tech.

Franco graduated from the school in 1996, and all of the art drew inspiration from the 1993 yearbook. In a flyer accompanying the event he comments, "Yearbooks are odd collections of images that ostensibly represent the collective experience of an entire school. Of course this is impossible, but I like their indexical organization. They are archives of awkwardness and cruelty, as well as memoirs of hopes and dreams. They capture people before they are fully formed, when the future is still somewhat open. But in some ways, as time passes, they show that the future was already solidifying in these early years. 

"For me high school was a time and place of myth and legend. Painting yearbook images twenty years after they were taken is a way to express the otherworldly, odd, fantastic quality that these years encapsulate in my memory."

Franco's mom Betsy spoke about the video component. Originally poems written by her son that were inspired by the band The Smiths, Betsy's students adapted them into ten short films. The poems were also made into songs by James's band, and then the footage from the films was spliced and filtered to fit the songs. While we aren't sure how far the finished videos deviate from the source material, the  music videos were a nice complement to the artwork, featuring a lot of the same bright tones mixed with grayscale, color separation, repetition, and close ups on the actor's faces, similar to the portraits.

All of the paintings were displayed high overhead, almost like playoff banners hung at ceiling height in school gymnasiums. This made it hard to appreciate the detail, but maybe the scale was designed to compensate for this? All of the images were quite large, the smallest probably around 3 feet by 5 feet. Also there is some repetition, a football scene above is also part of the collaged image below, for example.

One of the fellow attendees had done some research on Franco's technique and explained that the paintings were done on a small scale and then blown up oversize for the canvases, which also explains the repetition. Included in the paintings were stickers from the nineties (the blue smiley face definitely pulled some memories out of the ether).

Lastly there were murals painted on some of the building exteriors. In comparing these to the paintings on canvas, the shading is a little softer, which could also be due to these being painted at scale rather than scaled up.

Overall it was interesting to see an exhibit by someone for whom painting is a hobby rather than a career. It inspired us to get back into our drawing and crafting, and the timing couldn't be better as we head into Fall and have time for more cozy activities indoors. 

It also caused us to reflect on our high school experience. While some things haven't turned out quite as we pictured (definitely glad we don't have all those kids we thought we would quite yet), life has been pretty amazing so far. What are your thoughts on the exhibition?

For more information, please visit the show's Tumblr or contact the art studio manager at

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