New York Photo Review
Volume 3 Issue 12 April 4 to 10, 2012

Oh Glorius Kitsch
David LaChapelle
Earth Laughs in Flowers
America by David LaChapelle. Source: fredtorres.com
David LaChapelle, "America" 2008-2011

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 circuitous, 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.

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.

Late Summer by David LaChapelle. Source: fredtorres.com
David LaChapelle, "Late Summer" 2008-2011

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.”

That sounds good. Expanded horizons, more freedom! I continue reading. LaChapelle’s new photographs, the release explains “… 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 have been 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 1600’s vanitas paintings combined symbols of transitory wealth and pleasure with skulls, rotting food, crawling worms, burning candles and the like. To a religious, 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 Paris Hilton naked and tied up in microphone cord bondage and Elton John leaping from his piano into a cluster of cheetahs. The one, who, in fact, seems to understand contemporary excess, vanity and what divas of both sexes want better than anyone around.

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, intoning, “All is vanity.”

His entire career has done that! Very nicely, too. LaChapelle is our latter day Cecil Beaton with more skin. His theatricality dazzles and delights us.

But yes, this show is a letdown from LaChapelle’s usual standard. Still, 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 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 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.

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 they were wax – and quickly scribbled in my notebook, “O glorious kitsch.”

True.

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More of Tim Connors reviews and observations are available on his Looking at Visual Culture blog.

David LaChapelle
Earth Laughs in Flowers


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