Thursday, March 15, 2012

David LaChapelle's "Earth Laughs With Flowers"

"Lady Gaga, Pink Room," David LaChapelle, All rights reserved

Since Andy Warhol anointed him in the 1980s, David LaChapelle has reigned as the naughty boy of American photography. Unlike Warhol, whose provocations could be tangential and snide, LaChapelle’s outrages are disarmingly direct. In his most famous pictures semi-nude celebrities cavort in richly detailed sprees of lavish self-indulgence and orgiastic simulated sex. In others bewildered-looking models lift off the planet – raptured! -- in a sudden uprush of blown clothing and white light. In still others attractive young people impersonate characters in cracked, religious parables – the Madonna (original version), say, as a bleached-blonde Hollywood starlet wearing only a thong, or Jesus Christ himself, surrounded by deep-ghetto homeboys. One never knows.

"But No Man Moved Me Till the Tide Went Past My Simple Shoe," David LaChapelle, All rights reserved

LaChapelle’s pictures are meticulously created in a high-gloss, color-popping, hyper-realistic style, but no one is likely to mistake them for reality. Even the professional actors who appear in these fantasies seem compelled to chew the scenery. Their performances may be inevitable, given the sets, hair, wardrobe, lighting and props, which push past fabulous into giddy realms of extreme high camp. Yet the pictures somehow work. Despite the sleek narcissism, rampant nudity and wall-to-wall gender-bending (intended to shock), they somehow feel accessible, even good-natured. LaChapelle’s pictures crackle with subversive – or at least hilarious – ideas, rude energy and laughter. They are full of juicy life.

Thus, as a fan, I take no pleasure in reporting that LaChappelle’s latest show of 10 large floral still-lifes, “Earth Laughs With Flowers,” is a bore. According to the gallery’s press release, the show is the latest result of LaChapelle’s decision in 2006 – having already conquered the worlds of fashion photography, celebrity portraiture, music video and documentary film – to “minimize his participation in commercial photography and return to his roots by focusing on fine art photography.”

"Concerning the Soul," David LaChapelle, All rights reserved

That sounds good. Expanded horizons, more freedom! But LaChapelle’s new photographs, the release continues “… appropriate the traditional Baroque still life in order to explore contemporary vanity, vice, the transience of earthly possessions and, ultimately, the fragility of humanity.”

Wait a minute. From Lady Gaga wearing only bubbles to Baroque still life? I do my research. Apparently, LaChapelle’s new photographs were conceived as updates of the 17th century Dutch and Flemish still-life painting genre known as “vanitas.” The name comes from the Book of Ecclesiastes (1:2): “Vanita vanitatum omnia vanitatus,” which translates to "Vanity of vanities! All is vanity." In the 1600s vanitas paintings combined symbols of transitory wealth and pleasure with skulls, rotting food, crawling worms, burning candles and the like. To a religiously conservative northern European Protestant 350 years ago they demonstrated the insignificance of human life and underlined the importance of turning to God.

I try to connect this information with the photographer who lives on a Hawaiian estate with its own private jungle. The one who photographed a naked Paris Hilton tied up in microphone cord bondage and Elton John leaping from his spotted piano into a cluster of cheetahs. The photographer who, in fact, seems to understand contemporary excess, vanity and what Divas of both sexes want better than anyone around.

"Two Tutus," David LaChapelle, All rights reserved

Did LaChapelle just run across this stern idea in a book on art history? Does he really expect us to believe he made these photographs to warn us against the pitfalls of vanitas?

I hope not. LaChapelle doesn’t need some bogus-scholarly art historical imprimatur to justify his work. And he has no business adopting high-minded moral stances about “the transience of earthly possessions” or “the fragility of humanity.“ He’s a photographer, not a philosopher, and, let’s face it, possibly the last person on the planet who should be mounting the pulpit with dour old Dutch preachers to intone, “All is vanity.”

His entire career has done that! And very nicely, too. He’s our Cecil Beaton with skin and a sound track, whose theatricality dazzles and delights us.

"Jesus Is My Homeboy," David LaChapelle, All rights reserved

This show is a letdown from LaChapelle’s usual standard. But -- lose the musty art history references -- and it’s not without its charms. There’s a certain pleasure in standing back from the gorgeous grab bag jumble of these colorful, beautifully lit, six-foot-high studio productions. There is further fun in moving in close to the prints and discovering all the tchotchkes tangled up with the fruit and flowers -- multi-colored cell phones, styrofoam skulls, smouldering cigarettes, glitter-covered plastic bugs, Get Well and Good Luck balloons, a torched American flag, silicone prosthetic boobs, half-empty Starbuck’s iced coffee cup with branded green sipping straw, see-through ceramic phallus, pill bottles, squirt gun, Barbie dolls, raw chopped-off chicken feet in ziplock bag and, of course, many, many more.

"Foto Painting," David LaChapelle, All rights reserved

In LaChapelle’s world of absolute excess, there is nothing quite like total immersion. In fact, after several bemused minutes admiring the ruby red roses at the center of one composition, I realized the rose petals were molded in wax . I quickly scribbled in my notebook, “Glorious kitch” (sic). And I’m not ashamed…

This post also appears in New York Photo Review


Chris Bonney 2 said...

Well done, Tim. I like your choice of "disarmingly direct."

covo said...

He may talk about the Earth being raped, but it is David LaChapelle, I suspect, who is gleefully doing the raping. For his entire art is a celebration, not a condemnation, of wanton materiality. LaChapelle exults in stuff.