I first discovered the deliciously decadent fantasy world of David LaChapelle as a spotty teenager when I used to flick through my stylish older sister’s copies of Vogue. His sexed-up, cialis 40mg over-the-top, information pills glitzy style and explosive colour schemes – which shamelessly celebrated glamour, popular culture and materialism – were mesmerising, especially to a shy thirteen year old whose most fashionable outfit was an all-in-one stone-washed denim number (this was the first time around when it wasn’t cool).
Over the years, in a fantastic plastic kind-of-way, I have grown to admire LaChapelle’s razor sharp aesthetic, despite the crass nature of some of his chosen themes. Amongst celebrity and fashion circles, he is a master when it comes to knowing what makes a pretty picture so when I heard that his first political show, controversially entitled ‘Rape of Africa’, had opened at Robilant and Voena in Mayfair, I bolted down to the gallery like a horse on speed to check out the kitsch king’s take on more serious affairs.
Having turned his attention to fine-art in recent years, LaChapelle’s latest work is an open critique of western consumerism, presented as a mash-up of Italian Renaissance art and his glossy signature style. The show lends its name to the centre-piece, a tribute to Botticelli’s ‘Venus and Mars’, with a modern day twist. At first glance the photograph features a regal and supine looking Naomi Campbell as Venus in elegant tribal attire with one breast exposed and a handsome semi-naked model, Caleb Lane, as Mars in a post-coital state, surrounded by young angelic boys. On closer examination the boys are carrying guns and Mars is casually resting a finger on a gold human remain, possibly an arm/leg bone, with gold hand grenades, treasures and a diamond-encrusted skull scattered beneath him, in contrast to the African Venus’s more modest surroundings of a goat and cockerel. Behind the opulence, a hole is blown through a neon-lit montage of ‘Sun Bleach’, an American-stylised brand of detergent, to reveal a war-torn landscape with several cranes busy at work, destroying what is left of the distressed land.
Make no mistake, this is LaChapelle’s unapologetic statement piece, drawing our attention to child soldiers, unethical gold and diamond mining, and the derogatory view of African women being viewed as an exotic commodity by Western cultures, as their homes and countries are ravaged for the consumer’s benefit.
LaChapelle continues in this vein using models in art history to point a finger at the world’s obsession with materialism. In the gallery’s library, a vibrant colour-infused piece streaked with flowing pale blue, yellow and pink ribbons explodes from between the bookshelves. Another photograph inspired by Botticelli, ‘The Birth of Venus’, depicts Venus’s emergence onto the eden-like landscape, looking serenely into the distance, flanked by two male admirers who replace the Zephyr wind-gods and Nymph in the original painting. On closer inspection, LaChapelle again highlights contemporary consumer society by drawing our attention to Venus’s bling footwear (aquamarine diamond-encrusted shoes), with her male admirers wearing gold Puma trainers and a diamante-encrusted fishnet vest, with a metallic blue Nike tick sprayed onto the barefoot of one of the men.
Perhaps the most controversial piece likely to cause offense is ‘Thy Kingdom Come’, an image depicting the pope sitting on a gold throne inside a grand cathedral atop of mounds of treasure troves filled with pearls and gold, with four bloodied naked bodies, bound, blindfolded and scattered beneath the valuables in various states of trauma.
Similarly, a triptych of Michael Jackson in various messiah and saint-like poses flirts with the viewer’s tolerance. The first photograph, entitled ‘American Jesus: Hold me, carry me boldly’, shows an illuminated Jesus sitting amongst a rugged forest landscape, carrying the dead body of Michael Jackson as his white, diamond-encrusted glove lies limply on the floor just beneath his hand. The subsequent panels present Jackson in a saint-like pose with a gold pocket watch and a white dove resting in his hand, standing alongside a female holy saint. The final panel shows Jackson as an Archangel with white feathered wings, contrasting with his black Thriller-style outfit with tears streaming from his eyes, as Jackson’s right foot stamps down authoratatively on the devil’s chest.
As I wandered around the gallery examining the photos, I found myself underwhelmed by LaChapelle’s rather uninventive, shallow and juvenile take on the various themes. Although the photos were distinctively LaChapelle in their refined visual quality, there was no intellectual interpretation required here, challenging you to think beyond what was presented. However, as I pondered further, I realised that it was actually me who was missing the point.
LaChapelle’s work has always been known to be bold and gaudy, compelling and repelling in equal measure, a formula which he uses to leave an imprint on your inner psyche. For example, ‘Rape of Africa’, viewed from afar is a stunning visual of beautiful colours portraying beautiful-looking people, commanding your attention; however, once you are drawn in, it presents you with a harsher reality, hammering on the door of your conscience. Thus, for the MTV and Twitter generation, LaChapelle may be more effective in using hard-hitting pop culture imagery to bring home the message to a much wider audience than, say a political activist might, through more traditional forms of communication.
Having made his name through photographing the rich and famous, many of whom epitomise the consumerist attitudes that he now criticises, this show is a brave and interesting turn for LaChapelle. As I stepped back out into my dull monochrome surroundings devoid of his magical splashes of colour, it gradually dawned on my inner cynic that the exhibition whiffed slightly of hypocrisy. Apart from the preparatory drawings for ‘Rape of Africa’ included in the exhibition, all of the other portraits are up for sale. How much was LaChapelle making from this show I wondered, and how much of that money was he planning on donating to African NGOs?
I guess whether you’re wearing jewels indirectly responsible for destroying a continent or producing meticulously crafted portraits about jewels indirectly destroying a continent, beauty always comes at a cost.
David LaChapelle: The Rape of Africa is currently on show at Robilant and Voena, First Floor, 38 Dover Street, London W1 until 25 May 2010 (robilantvoena.com/exhibitions).
Having spared the time to attend Mr LaChapelle’s exhibition and write a review of his work leading to increased exposure for him, Amelia’s Magazine had a bit of a nightmare experience with Robilant and Voena’s press office in trying to obtain images for this piece, which are apparently available on request (depending on who you are). So, in the absence of official images from the gallery (and to avoid having to deal with snooty, unhelpful people), we took the liberty of coming up with our own and a few more from the ‘LaChapelle Studio’ as seen below (all illustrations by Lisa Stannard).
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