David LaChapelle SCAPEs By Josef Ng

Pearl Lam Galleries
Sep 27, 2017 5:28AM

This exhibition of David LaChapelle at Shanghai Pearl Lam Galleries delineates four groupings within a loosely thematic structure: Appropriation of the Art World, Faith and Spirituality, Landscapes in Industrialization, andIconographies.

A photograph has the potential of becoming a symbolic object of nostalgia, evoking a multitude of unspoken emotions depending on the action of its maker (the photographer) at the precise time of making the photograph. The photographer’s course of action through his or her act of capturing that precise moment is forever frozen in a still shot for posterity to look upon and judge its value—both intrinsic and extrinsic.

David LaChapelle b. 1963, A New World, 2017, Hand-painted negative-pigment print

This exhibition of David LaChapelle delineates four groupings within a loosely thematic structure: Appropriation of the Art World, Faith and Spirituality, Landscapes in Industrialization, and Iconographies. It will feature assorted pieces from LaChapelle’s early years in the 1990s and 2000s as a photographer best known for his commercial shoots and projects, as well as selections produced as themed series, including his most recent works created since he reignited his artistic career almost a decade ago.

In between burgeoning new worlds of art and fashion and celebritydom, LaChapelle has occupied a unique position. Based in Los Angeles, he is well known in the fashion world, although he rightly considers himself, first and foremost, an artist. LaChapelle first worked with Andy Warhol in his earliest days as a New York-based photographer with Interview Magazine. The influence of his personal experience in art on his photographic practices is not only limited to the progressive development of aesthetics, concepts, and ideas, but is also seen in how he references and appropriates a wealth of art histories, incidental images, and popular cultures that are current in the visual age, which flow like a digital line of dominoes.

LaChapelle revolutionizes photography by attempting a holistic rendering of personage, religion, and social-environmentalism through bold, vibrant, and of-the-moment stylistic palettes and inventiveness. With the advent of technical capabilities and consumer-oriented sophistication, we are no longer impressed by simple likeness and technical virtuosity. The purpose of photography, the kind that adds to the sum of our wisdom and experience, is not to represent but to reveal.

The overwhelming volume of images produced during the first two decades of LaChapelle’s microcosmic career is of an astounding variety. Even as a commercial photographer early on, he presented fabulous illusions with serpentine backdrops and settings, which he continues to take far beyond the moment of mere capture. Magazine spreads, directed music videos, celebrity portraitures, and commissioned projects, etc., have made LaChapelle one of photography’s most recognized names and in-demand talents.

David LaChapelle b. 1963, Land SCAPE_Riverside, 2013, Chromogenic print

He relentlessly actualizes works that address identity, memory, gender, and faith—the vanishing points at which the personal and cultural blur into one another. Semantically vibrant and complex with strong currents of social awareness, as well as love and passion for his subject matters, LaChapelle achieves some of his best work within his comfort zone of subcultures, glamour in urban milieu, and motifs by exploring the characteristic features, personalities, and psychological moods with painstaking attention to detail, which shapes his illusive language of visual vocabulary. They call to mind modernist Hermann Broch’s definition of kitsch as the product of “an emergent bourgeoisie caught between contradictory values: an asceticism of work on the one hand and an exaltation of feeling on the other”.

Aptly titled, the exhibition SCAPEs is arranged around a thematic reading of LaChapelle’s varying oeuvres, devoted to a particular kind of series/focus.

The first encountered section gathers LaChapelle’s explicit appropriation of the synthesis of the Art World. Celebrity culture, including in the visual art galaxy, is a phenomenon now. For the ambitious global generation of today, this has almost a greater resonance and immediacy than reality. LaChapelle’s shaping of this phenomenon engages with art history and the currencies of contemporary art today on multiple levels. The appropriation of an influence, transformed by his vision, only enriches the final image.

Taking on satirical parodied situations, the chosen photos offer personifications of how fun it can be to prop up canonical references in the growing recognition of a genre. The works take on Pop Art, for example, or show the model, artist, or even personality beneath the veneer. There are nods to classical fine art, from history’s muscular marble sculptures to religious figurations, and to the artist’s sly allusions to Western contemporary art’s signature emblems of class and soonto- be historical status. From photos of eerily flooded museums chambers—both baroque halls and white cubes—filled with various artworks, to appropriations of Andy Warhol’s classic portraits of Hollywood movie icons Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor, starring LaChapelle’s long-time muse, Amanda Lepore, these works provoke feelings that are more nihilistic than naturalistic, and more cynical than critical.

LaChapelle engages with photography as a magic art of illusions. His photographs possess the irruptive energy of an artist willing to use all the resources at his disposal, including his personal faith and spiritual beliefs, as focal influences.

Consisting of meticulously hand-painted negatives, New World, the artist’s latest series, offers a narrative of serene spirituality; it juxtaposes people accessorized with symbolic religious garments in lush outdoor settings to capture the nuances of this ephemeral experience. Rich in details, these works are knowingly mesmerizing and exotic. His ability to use the personal and the intimate to portray the collective through staged tableaux in the wilderness results in a joyfully syncretic mix. The call of the wild, with representational imagery suggesting a slight melancholic tinge, is composed in this series as a reactionary tendency against the metropolis or cosmopolitanism, exemplified by the appeal of natural wildlife and the regain of consciousness and empathy for the inherent nature of mankind. This commingling of religious and natural imagery evokes a notion of faith centred on not merely how religion and cultural belongings define individual identity, but also on how spirituality creates community and an understanding of human life.

Not only are artist-photographers agents of their audiences’ sensory experiences; they too are participants who learn and grow within the evolving domain of their belief systems. This is exemplified by LaChapelle’s constant exploration of subjects concerning humanity and its environments.

LaChapelle delves into the sinister heart of industrialism in his series Land Scape and GAS, which feature the perceived constructions of factory landscapes and petrol stations with a neon-lit glow. It is an elaborate series with a colour palette that is at once polished and garish, encapsulating its prevailing atmosphere, making it an experience in itself, suspended in time. These photos, in which assembly-line factories and sites, devoid of characters, are set against the backdrop of either forested areas or skylines and horizons, are dizzying, dark, and perversely sardonic. The works reflect the excesses of consumption and dissipation amidst the echo chambers of these industrial sites that emit energy and power on which today’s societies are so hungrily reliant. Through the visual language of giving these otherwise banal settings an otherworldly luminous tint, the effect is both kaleidoscopic and reflective. All in all, Land Scape portrays more broadly the artist’s critique of today’s social-environmental situation and urgency, mobilized through exuberant imageries to look at, and, as a whole, makes a perceptive and compelling impression.

LaChapelle’s commercial work frequently draws on cultural and pop references, from street cultures and societal movements to Hollywood movies and popular music, etc. Equally, the growing fascination and familiarity with celebrity and popular culture is fostered by the allure of virtual and social media reality, with its heroes and heroines, second lives, avatars, and secret identities familiar to millions of netizens.

In the Iconographies section, confronted by a wall of household icons and scenarios, each unique portrait sings its own song of unique postures, whimsical nuances, and realities. With a nakedness that is almost manipulative and fantastically kitschy, LaChapelle lays bare the lives lived by his subjects. With portraitures taken of celebrities and models such as Lady Gaga, Björk, Uma Thurman, Naomi Campbell, and many more, he meshes absurd elements together and calls for the suspension of our disbelief. These also include multiple translations of the enigmatic Asian cultural icon of modern times, the late Bruce Lee, as an interpellated subject, constantly in a state of fearless poise, whose well-known fighting gestures and nuances light up the exuberant facades within the photos reminiscent of the glitz and glamour of old Hollywood culture.

This surely is made possible only by LaChapelle’s subjects’ implicit trust in him in response to his respect for them—be they household celebrities, suburban dwellers, street hustlers, or artists, etc. Rather than endorsing obsessions with beauty, glamour, and celebrity, he both feeds off of the desires that drive them and simultaneously shapes enviable archetypes to which his audiences and fans can relate. In this way, LaChapelle presents incredible images that are in themselves bizarre and incongruous, and are self-reflexive in terms of the subject matter that is represented. After all, the camera does not record merely the physical, but also the magical relationship between the face before and the man behind the lens’ unblinking eye.

Arty, inventive, and almost always over-the-top, the images capture the socio-cultural fascinations of the moment—a visual confluence of every nuance of obsessions and desires, drawing from the imaginative freedom that is seeping into the bedrock of popular culture. His allusions are peppered with references to the “ultra bourgeois” elements of free-flowing burlesque-like fantasy that go beyond a simple desire for glamour. It is a declaration of self. Furthermore, LaChapelle’s celebrated sitters/models are clearly uninhibitedly enjoying themselves. To be subjected to photographic representation, despite their public professions, requires a complete surrender to the viewer’s gaze—an ultimate sacrifice of selfhood that is worthy of reverence. More than mirrors held up to our own world, or windows into other ones, LaChapelle’s distinct brand of high-polish whimsy and accentuation is a brash and pioneering choreographed construction that has helped the artist become a creative icon of his generation, as he is an icon maker.

Photography, “David LaChapelle-style”, has its own form of evolution that includes the occasional throwback and the odd dead end, as the image, the idea, and the visual language adapt to the moment, to each thought, and to the nature of each project. We sense the time it took to create the image even as we understand it to be timeless.

What is certain is that LaChapelle’s work will continue to encapsulate the interests and ambitions of his generation. In a sense, all forms of cultural marginalia—beliefs, spectacles, and speculations from society’s fringes, along with excessiveness that has held a strong grip on the imagination, expressions of desires and pleasures unknown—is for him to reach out to and express. In so doing, it will ensure that as an individual, he is unique.

Pearl Lam Galleries