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James Franco grabs another role with MOCA show on 'Rebel Without a Cause'

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James Franco is an actor-turned-artist-turned-author-turned-actor-playing-an-artist-named-Franco in the soap opera "General Hospital" — who has made a movie, "Francophrenia," that documents the experience. He's about as "meta" as it gets.

Now Franco has brought his knack for melding pop culture and fine art in unorthodox ways to a new exhibition for Los Angeles' Museum of Contemporary Art. "Rebel," which opens Tuesday, is a high-concept group show that is a loose, interpretive ode to the 1955 James Dean film "Rebel Without a Cause."

It brings together paintings, sculpture and multimedia works by Ed Ruscha, Harmony Korine, Paul McCarthy, Damon McCarthy, Douglas Gordon, Terry Richardson, Aaron Young and, of course, Franco, who organized the show and is feverishly present throughout it, both directing and appearing in multiple pieces.

He calls "Rebel Without a Cause" "the first mainstream American movie that dealt with teenagers on their own terms."

"And it still, in a lot of ways, is the prototype for the teen films we see today," Franco says. "[The exhibition] is an extension of the film. It's not about being loyal to it, as much as it is using the film as a source for inspiration and building off that to create new work."

Franco has long been fascinated, if a bit existentially entangled, with the iconic image of James Dean. He was captivated by "Rebel Without a Cause" as a teenager, and he played Dean in a 2001 TV biopic, a role he says he research extensively and one that earned him a Golden Globe.

It was the 50th anniversary of Dean's death that prompted Franco to start thinking about an unconventional project that would celebrate the actor.

"Not just his character but the legends, which are just as powerful as the facts of his life," Franco says. "I kept thinking: What more could I do?"

A contemporary group exhibition made sense to Franco, who chose some of his favorite artists whose work was, in some way, related to film. Framing the show with director Nicholas Ray's movie, he felt, provided especially rich material for the artists to work with. MOCA's "Rebel" explores themes of teenage angst and rebellion, sexual coming of age, issues of identity, mass media and patriarchal authority, among other threads.

Filmmaker Korine, who wrote and directed the upcoming movie "Spring Breakers," starring Franco, shot a six-minute video for "Rebel" reinterpreting the movie's famous knife fight at the Griffith Observatory. It's not without a decided dose of humor: Korine shot the piece in a downtown L.A. parking garage featuring real girl gangs on BMX bikes with machetes. He also created an abstract sculptural installation made with props from the video, like BMX bike parts and a "severed" prosthetic Dean head in a glass case.

"The movie's so over-the-top, I almost find it funny," Korine says. "I liked the idea of reinterpreting the violence in this way."

Paul McCarthy and his son Damon McCarthy built two massive sets, or "fake architectures," as Paul McCarthy calls them, including a size-accurate reconstruction of Bungalow 2 at the Chateau Marmont. That's where Ray supposedly wrote and rehearsed "Rebel Without a Cause" with Dean, Sal Mineo and Natalie Wood. The McCarthys also rebuilt the staircase set from the movie family's home. Then they shot abstract scenes in which Franco plays Dean and Paul McCarthy plays Ray, weaving themes from the movie and behind-the-scenes rumors.

"If anything, it's about the critique of the Hollywood Structure," Paul McCarthy says. "It's also about steps, and media and disassociation, and not being able to find your way through something, and the mass of media, and iconic imagery of patriarch and power."

"Rebel" will be held off-site at the high-end furniture showroom and exhibition space JF Chen on Highland Avenue. The museum's decision to hold an exhibition in a commercial space generated some controversy several months ago, with some blogs suggesting it was a conflict of interest. But MOCA Director Jeffrey Deitch says it's "not at all a conflict." He says owner Joel Chen is an in-kind donor, offering his space at a reduced rate — and that MOCA is fairly and squarely renting Chen's 20,000-square-foot exhibition space "for a reasonable fee."

Last October, Chen used the space to hold the exhibition "Collecting Eames, the JF Chen Collection" in conjunction with the Pacific Standard Time regional art project.

"I've always believed great art should be accessible," Deitch says. "I'm very interested in using all of Los Angeles as a museum."

"Rebel's" somewhat unconventional location is consistent with the iconoclastic tone of the show, which is ultimately about convergence of media, Deitch says.

"It's one of the most significant things going on right now — not just in art but also in progressive culture — this convergence, the dissolving of boundaries between what is art, what's music, what is performance," he says. "This show is film, performance, architecture, painting, sculpture, video; it's all of these media. And it's also the convergence between a more elevated fine art culture and popular culture."

Franco, Deitch says, "is one of these people who is leading this convergence."

But Franco is more modest about his multifaceted career.

"I feel like a lot of artists have been doing that for a long time," he says, citing Paul McCarthy, Mike Kelley and Andy Warhol as examples.

Still, he fully embraces Deitch's ideas of convergence.

"The way I work is all about cross-pollination. That's what inspires me," he says. ["Rebel"] was a way of approaching the material using contemporary artists so that we could capture something of the original spirit ... and to use people that would be able to really get underneath it and find the vitality that was there."

deborah.vankin@latimes.com

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