Explore Fraenkenstein

Jeffrey Fraenkel & Jordan Stein discuss Fraenkenstein’s creation

John Waters, Reconstructed Lassie, 2012
chromogenic print, 30 x 20 inches (image) [76.2 x 50.8 cm], edition of 5

The exhibition Fraenkenstein, on view at Fraenkel Gallery until August 10, is a collaboration between gallery founder Jeffrey Fraenkel and curator and writer Jordan Stein, of the San Francisco exhibition space Cushion Works.​ In a recent conversation, the pair describe their shared interest in the long shadow cast by Mary Shelley’s 1818 book. They discuss the evolution of the Frankenstein story in the larger culture, and the various ways the book’s ideas have been absorbed or reflected by artists.

Peter Hujar, Thek Working on the Tomb Figure, 1967
pigment print by Gary Schneider, 16 x 20 inches (sheet) [40.6 x 50.8 cm], edition of 10

Jeffrey Fraenkel: I would say this project felt fully born from the moment Jordan first proposed it. We both knew the exhibition would be wide ranging and would encompass work in a variety of media. And of course there were two scientists working on this project instead of the single Dr. Frankenstein in the book – the perfect vehicle to meld our sensibilities. 

Jordan Stein: And to echo the nature of Dr. Frankenstein’s creation, it was intuitive to assemble the show from disparate and available parts. The doctor is single-minded in his quest, and it’s clear that he will find a way to animate life. We knew it would come alive. There were certain images and artists that we sent back and forth, and it eventually reached a kind of perfectly manic equilibrium.

Diane Arbus, “Frankenstein’s Daughter” [close up with shoulders] 1958
gelatin silver print / printed by Diane Arbus, 11 x 14 inches (sheet) [27.9 x 35.6 cm]

JF: My early tagline for the exhibition was “art that’ll scare the shit out of you,” but that evolved over time. Now fear is only one aspect of the show.

The first image I sent you was a Diane Arbus photograph made inside a movie theater in 1958. The theater was screening Frankenstein’s Daughter, and Arbus is, I think, recognizing the film’s tawdry scariness that is not really scary. Well, maybe it’s a little scary, but she pokes a hole through that with the photograph.

JS: The scariest stuff in our culture becomes a Halloween costume; Frankenstein is popular on October 31st in every neighborhood in this country. Danny McDonald’s piece, which includes more than a dozen different Frankenstein dolls and action figures, is called The Viewing; the largest one is dead and all the other Frankensteins are mourning its loss. Frankenstein is dead! Long live Frankenstein! There’s something funny and inexhaustible about Mary Shelley’s creation. Arbus certainly picked up on that.

Danny McDonald, The Viewing, 2022
Fraenkenstein action figures (plastic, cloth, paint), pedestal, 52-1/4 x 33 x 18-1/2 (overall) [132.7 x 83.8 x 47 cm]

JF: I had forgotten how meta the novel is. It is a story within a story, which is all the more astonishing when you realize Mary Shelley was only 19 when she wrote Frankenstein. The diversity of works selected for the show really do address a wide range of the book’s themes.

JS: Right. And it makes good sense to host the show at Fraenkel as the novel was written right alongside the invention of photography – they emerged just a few years apart. The fact that Dr. Frankenstein sets out to understand the otherwise invisible laws of nature is of a piece with the origins of photographic technology.

Bruce Conner, THE LATE NIGHT MOVIE ON TV: JUNE 10, 1978 @1:20-1:27 A.M.: STERNS MOTEL IN VENICE, CA, NEG.#10A, 1978
gelatin silver print, 11 x 14 inches (sheet) [27.9 x 35.6 cm], edition of 3
Bruce Conner, THE LATE NIGHT MOVIE ON TV: JUNE 10, 1978 @1:20-1:27 A.M.: STERNS MOTEL IN VENICE, CA, NEG.#11A, 1978
gelatin silver print, 14 x 11 inches (sheet) [35.6 x 27.9 cm], edition of 3

JF: For me, maybe the central piece in the show is John Waters’s altered portrait of Lassie after cosmetic surgery, to make her appear younger. I mean, it’s hard for an old broad of a collie to get work in Hollywood these days, right? John’s piece strikes me as the ultimate Hollywood horror story about the fear of aging, told in the darkly comic voice that’s uniquely his.

JS: The Hiroshi Sugimoto is a perfect fit because the doctor talks about how his studies of electricity led to the creation of his monster. And the monster, of course, has a mind of its own – there it is looking back at you in these amazing Bruce Conner pictures. You know, you’re just trying to watch a little TV before nodding off, and BOOM – it’s got eyes on you. Similarly in Richard Misrach’s image of the shot-up Andy Warhol ad, there’s the Terminator-esque intersection of the human and the post-human. All in the name of hair spray!

Hiroshi Sugimoto, Lightning Fields 222, 2009
gelatin silver print, 71-3/4 x 60 inches (framed) [182.3 x 152.4 cm], edition of 5
Richard Misrach, Playboy #038 (Andy Warhol), 1990
pigment print, 29 x 25 inches (framed) [73.7 x 63.5 cm]

JF: The Misrach is an unexpected image from a body of work made almost 35 years ago. It’s a straightforward photograph of a copy of Playboy magazine Richard found in the desert, a copy that had been used for target practice. As Richard looked through the magazine, he was horrified by the meanings that had been created by the bullet holes. The shot-through Playboy had become a new type of Duchampian found object.

JS: An art studio is in some ways like a laboratory, and there’s a relationship between artistic production and the activation of inanimate materials. In the Peter Hujar and Whitney Hubbs works, an art studio is clearly a place where unpredictable experiments are sanctioned and protected. In both works, the artist becomes the subject–similarly with Martine Gutierrez’s work. It’s hard to tell where the artist and subject stop and start, and it addresses the extraordinary alchemy that can happen in the studio and in an artist’s imagination.

Whitney Hubbs, Funny Ha Ha #4, 2022
chromogenic prints & archival clear tape on glass mirror, 36 x 60 inches (overall) [91.4 x 152.4 cm]
Martine Gutierrez, Plastics, Brigitte, 2020
chromogenic print, 24 × 17 inches (framed) [61 × 43.2 cm], edition of 8

JS: Dr. Frankenstein retreats from his family and from the broader world in an effort to make sense of his secret passion. I know a lot of artists like that. The doctor’s beating a path to do things that have never been done and to materialize visions that have never been seen. BJ Newton was a California artist who was in and out of correctional facilities, painting unearthly visions he conjured from the confines of a prison cell. There’s a play between portraiture, self-portraiture, landscape, and religious iconography that explores a world that is both here and beyond.

JF: Newton’s painting in the show seems end-of-the worldish, fiery, apocalyptic.

B.J. Newton, One Sow, One Reap, 1969
oil on canvas, 21-1/4 x 34 inches (framed) [53.97 x 86.36 cm]

JS: The doctor sets out to animate life, but some bits of human creation are too micro for him to construct. So he makes an oversized version of a person: it’s like the opposite of making a model. It gets bigger, like the kind of enormous animal foot in Brett Goodroad’s painting The Club.

JF: In the Goodroad, the very way it’s painted feels like a roiling of all the energies coming together in Dr. Frankenstein’s studio. If they could be depicted, they would look like this.

Brett Goodroad, The Club, 2015
watercolor on paper stretched over canvas, 24-1-2 x 35-1/2 inches [62.2 x 90.2 cm]

JS: There are serious warnings in this book. I wrote down artificial intelligence a dozen times as I was reading this thing.

JF: Yeah. It feels as if Mary Shelley directly anticipated the potential consequences of artificial intelligence. What we created may soon be out to destroy us.

Janet Cardiff & George Bures Miller, Genie, 2023
mixed media with electronics, magnet, 11 x 10 x 5 inches (overall) [27.9 x 25.4 x 12.7 cm]

JS: It’s pretty uncanny. The monster finds a stack of books outside his hovel, and he begins to understand the complexity of the world by reading them. He’s learning through the construction of a data set.

JF: In a way, Christian Marclay’s works feel as if they are screaming with a warning to wake up, pay attention and save ourselves before it’s too late. Christian’s works were all made during the shutdown and convey that existential undercurrent of anxiety we felt then and continue to feel now.

Christian Marclay, Untitled (Cut Throat), 2020
comic book and magazine cutouts on paper, 19 x 18-1/2 inches (framed) [48.3 x 47 cm]

JS: There’s an annotated version of Frankenstein for engineers and scientists published by MIT, but there’s no annotated Frankenstein for artists. It’d be my hope that maybe this exhibition kicks up some ideas around just how powerful and compelling artists’ visions have been, and will continue to be.

JF: One thing is for sure, if Mary Shelley came to see this show, she would love it.

JS: Mm-Hmm. It might even scare the shit out of her.

Kota Ezawa, The Scream, 2016
transparency in lightbox, 33-3/4 X 26-3/4 inches (overall) [83.8 x 67.9 cm], edition of 5

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