If you’re a fan of James Bidgood’s kitsch-erotic imagery, then you’ll love David LaChapelle’s trash-pop. With a dominant streak of fetishism and obsessive neurosis, After the Deluge is a dive head-first into a universe saturated with colour. After the deluge runs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Mons, until 25 February.
Those discovering David LaChapelle for the first time should be aware that some scenes may offend the sensibilities of the uninitiated. With hermaphrodite angels, naked girls straddling giant mushrooms, forewarned is forearmed! Encompassing porn-chic and transgressive visions, if transgender beauties make you squirm and masturbatory fictions provoke a nervous sweat, it might be best to give this particular exhibition a miss. Conversely, maybe it’s the perfect opportunity to explore the buried impulses, neurotic obsessions and wild thoughts that lie in the uncharted waters beyond your comfort zone – if so, the new hang at the Museum of the Fine Arts in Mons devoted to the (very) subversive David LaChapelle, might please you after all…
One of the many urban myths in circulation about David LaChapelle, is the rumour that his first picture was of his mother Helga, in a bikini, Martini glass in hand, on a Puerto Rican terrace. If this particular urban myth is to be believed, it would sum up the work the photographer and film director born in Fairfield, Connecticut (1963) well; LaChapelle is the angry child of fashion and advertising. Moving to New York before the age of 20, a job at Studio 54, centre of the New York underground scene, and then – crucially – a meeting with the Pope of Pop art, Andy Warhol, with whom he would go on to collaborate for Interview magazine. David LaChapelle has become the Basquiat of the C-print.
A post-modern Jérôme Bosch
Despite all this, what LaChapelle remains best known for is his astonishing capacity to create complete monstrosities- making him something along the lines of a post-modern Jérôme Bosch. Think creepy but beautiful scenery and anxiety-inducing baroque-style gardens. The world of David Lachapelle resembles some sort of Eden constructed of pink and green plastic, in which a transexual Eve provokes the birth of humanity through sordid games, the corruption of nature and general depravity. So what exactly does this ‘bad taste’ constitute?
Candy colours, an erotic-kitsch aesthetic that pays homage to James Bidgood, this bazaar-style fetichism interspersed with bouts of toxic publicity has been around for more than 30 years. In fact, what is considered hardcore today, such as brutal, disrespectful and violent images, are no longer images created by David LaChapelle, they’re images of our world; life has begun to imitate art. Could this be why in 2006 the artist decided to withdraw to the pacific island of Maui, declaring “I’ve said what I wanted to say”? For a self-proclaimed “high speed, high productivity photographer”, it’s a steep learning curve. After completing the catalogue of narcissistic impulses and compulsive instincts of an entire generation in the 1980s, LaChapelle was the king of the morning after – this time, a hangover worthy of a ticket to the Pacific Ocean…
Things have since improved. The world clings on to its vulgarity and flesh still looks rather sad, but it seems like David has changed the focus of his Nikon. The year 2006 was a turning point; LaChapelle travelled to Italy, visiting Rome, where he found himself enchanted by the Sistine Chapel. There, a new chapter of his life begins to unfold, signalling an end to sophistication, Vanity Fair and hyped-up icons. With The flood LaChapelle works in a more conceptual way, creating deeper messages within his work. Inspired by the Deluge of Michelangelo at the Vatican, David LaChapelle has created a powerful work of art – and enormous, at more than seven metres wide. Mannerism remains present in his work, yet with a playful nod to the Italian Renaissance, the great citation, and religious art from the beginning of the Cinquecento. Work from the past decade (which occupies the second part of the exhibition) have been influenced by real history, and depicted as large Cibachromes fluorescent notes. There are dreamy visions of Genesis, a version of the original sin revisited on acid… The series After the deluge, is almost like the “making of” of Biblical times- just a little bit more trashy.
Road movie in Paradise
The other notable new feature in the work of David LaChapelle is a new engagement with the environment, questioning whether development is sustainable and humanity renewable. Why is it that our relationship with the environment is so toxic? It’s called dystopia; just a short word, but something that we experience every single day. Dystopia, is obviously a utopia that turns into a nightmare – the worst of dreams. In the imagination of LaChapelle, it takes the shape of a Shell service station in the Hawaiian forest, a museum submerged by the water. At age 54, LaChapelle, the former fashion photography mogul is deeply concerned. There’s no hiding from the fact that the myth of catastrophic rains and universal flooding touches a nerve for most of us.
As an apostle of the most extreme consumerism just 10 years ago, today LaChapelle is now buying back his purity. Is a road movie headed for paradise a second step towards redemption? An exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts in Mons curated by Commissioner Gianni Mercurio, who also curated the 2009 Keith Haring exhibition and Andy Warhol exhibition in 2013 – looks like some form of atonement. Divided into two sections on the two floors of the Museum, a hundred photos, including many larger ones, prove its good faith. There was life before LaChapelle – and there will be after. The first part of this vast retrospective focuses on the works created up to the year 2007, including flashy, homoerotic photographs prints and tacky vanitas images. The second section offers a vision of an almost militantly environmentally-responsible society. Whilst, of course, the artist hasn’t left the world of showbiz behind entirely, his latest work does depict something beyond the commodification of the body and emotion. His latest images create a semantic field of shipwreck and salvation. They have a new light about them- mystical at times, such as in the series Paradise or his latest cycle, symbolically entitled New World. Silent, enigmatic images depicting highly psychotropic scenarios, but with less pop culture and more of nature. A bit less sex and a bit more spirit is not always a bad thing after all.
“David LaChapelle. After the deluge.” runs until 25th February at BAM-Fine-Arts Mons.
8 New Street. Mons, Belgium. www.bam.mons.be
Some will appreciate the biblical references in Lost + Found, Part 1 and Good News, Part 2: LaChapelle himself considers them and Old and New Testament of sorts. Both books were published by Taschen at the end of 2017. The exhibition catalogue for After the Deluge is to be published by Snoeck, with contributions from Gianni Mercurio, Commissioner of the retrospective, Sandra Caltagirone and Demetrio Paparoni.