Temptation / Redemption / Food / Glory / God
David LaChapelle at Fotografiska New York
If David LaChapelle’s photos don’t make your mouth water, I don’t know what will. It almost feels like the Fotografiska museum in New York was built specifically to house his cartoonishly ebullient pictures — the self-described ‘cathedral-like’ building (they’re not wrong), looms amid the skyline like a haunted gingerbread castle — go at night and it’s lit up in such a way to emphasize the drama of the architecture’s lines against the stark sky, which makes it both inviting and somewhat terrifying.
If the museum is the haunted gingerbread castle, LaChapelle’s photographs are the dandy candy ghosts that tempt the wandering children of the forest with their sweet siren songs. Consider me one of them (the wandering children, that is)! I basically floated in on a breeze like a cartoon character who smells a pie in a window and drifts toward it in hypnotic intoxication. I’m telling you, these pictures do seem to have an aroma to them — the figures and their environments are offered as food for the viewer to consume (although as an art monster I’m prone to make that comparison, here it really has weight — why do you think I insisted on including LaChapelle in the Fame issue?!). Food and the troubled American relationship to it is a perennial subject of LaChapelle’s — he’s aware of the great draw of consumption, and the torture of it as well. It was making my stomach growl! Talk about torture! The treatment of the photos makes them crisp, sumptuous, and hyperreal, a similar strategy to that of the dynamic duo Pierre et Gilles. I always say that if you find yourself asking, “How the heck did they do it?”, then it’s at least art that fascinates. LaChapelle’s tableaux are resplendent feats of fancy, his staging similar to James Bidgood (who had only a studio apartment to create his fantastical photos of mermen and fawns in little Gardens of Eden). Not only is LaChapelle’s staging inarguably epic, but the painting of the negatives (spoiler alert: that’s how he does it) renders the textures of everything in them surrealistically glossy, the surfaces almost like a shining marzipan or even wax fruit or polymer clay— scintillating but ultimately inedible. Is it cake? Yes and no.
The show at Fotografiska is appropriately named ‘Make Believe,’ and it is the first museum-wide takeover by a single artist, ain’t that somethin? Such a snazzy title for such a rich body of work is like a pitch-perfect little poem, if you ask me. Games of pretend, the building of little imaginary worlds, the creation of glamour all come to mind, as well as the theme of scriptural faith that has come to define LaChapelle‘s particularly curious ethos. No artist is more aware than he, I would gander, that the secular society we live in insists on making divine the celebrities we all turn to for examples on how to survive and thrive. In picture after picture, he stages contemporary stars as saints and divine messengers from the Christian canon. The testament is ultimately to the power of the camera to create a star and of art to allow access to the divine. Indeed, the glowing pictures at Fotografiska seem to be a kind of window into another world, glimpses of a fanciful heaven that LaChapelle and his lens have constructed: invitations, like the stained glass and altarpieces from the heyday of Christendom, to connect to the divine through weird and wonderful images that dare to make the unseen seen. Art has always been connected to faith and to power — LaChapelle intrinsically understands this, and explores it with a lavishness that makes him, in this art monster’s opinion, a masterful whimsician.
Well, it makes sense: he worked with Andy Warhol. LaChapelle, in fact, took the last picture of Andy. Like him or not, Warhol was and is one of the largest artistic powerhouses of the 20th century, and to be within his orbit was to be connected to that fleeting will-o-the-wisp that we here at Humphrey Magazine have taken it upon ourselves to examine: yes, you guessed it, fame. A quote from the eloquent mind of Reni Celeste:
“Star power is a love affair…. Andy Warhol confessed that he became incapable of love by the end of the 1960s. Instead, he became fascinated by certain people. This new euphoria, or trance, is the perfect description of star power. The star’s glamour is not so much that she possesses high stature, like a queen, and is as such an ideal without a body, but the discovery that she is flesh, that she is also low, soiled, even foul. Warhol was fascinated that stars ate at the same fast-food restaurants as everyone else and had body odors and personal problems. An encounter with stardom was a form of disclosure and revelation. In a traditional metaphysics, this process of pursuing nudity would be understood as a pursuit of truth over falsity, where the image is false and the original true. This rhetoric still exists in the language of reality programming, which promises ‘real life’ and ‘real events.’ Baudrillard foresaw the market for reality programming when he argued that the more hyperreal or image intensive modern culture became, the hungrier the spectator would become for this elusive ‘real.’”
Long quote, I know. But one that pierces like a hot poker to the heart of LaChapelle’s project, describing the kind of sublime, uncanny power that celebrity has to warp our sense of reality — an effect that is explicitly created in LaChapelle’s photos, in fact may even be the goal. The reason Warhol was fascinated that stars had body odors and ate fast food is an admission of his own confusion with their divinity: he thought of them as immortal. It’s all about the expansive capacity inherent to the nature of image, I would posit. The separation that an image creates, you see, placing another person on a 2-dimensional plane — the photograph, painting, or screen — creates a divide that is insurmountable, placing the person admiring the picture in the role of supplicant, and the person in the photo that of immortal being. “This passionate proximity combined with a tragic distance is the core of fandom,” Celeste writes. In a way, they really are immortal, since the image as it exists as an object will, barring its destruction, last beyond the lifespan of both its creator and the subject. Why do you think patrons would pay hot dollars to be included in the altarpieces of Medieval cathedrals? For a little slice of fame, of course, which is ultimately a little slice of immortality.
Celeste again: “Torture of the body, death, and resurrection are the path to the infinite. Likewise, the star must suffer, die, and survive the body, all its excesses, addictions, obesities, and diseases, to be reborn as pure image and immortal icon.” Seriously, I wouldn’t blame you for being suspicious that she’s writing about the same exhibit that I am, but her essay is from 2005, titled ‘Screen Idols: The Tragedy of Falling Stars,’ I promise! She’s tapping into the same celebrity-as-divinity equation that LaChapelle has made the driving force of his work for 40 years. The body in particular holds a certain fascination for LaChapelle, his special brand of nudity offering the reality and closeness to celebrities that Celeste mentions above, while simultaneously referencing classical artwork — it’s an incredible combination that creates titillation and transcendence at the same time, similar to Renaissance and Baroque artists depicting saints in the throes of divine ecstasy. There is something orgasmic about being touched by the divine.
There is a full-circle moment in the Fotografiska exhibition where the early work folds into the most recent — frankly, it was difficult to tell which was which sometimes, and it’s kind of amazing that LaChapelle made some of the early work in the 80s while living mere blocks away from where Fotografiska now resides. Being overwhelmed with the media machine required to promulgate modern celebrity in which he had become so enmeshed, LaChapelle relocated to a former nudist colony in Maui in the mid-2000s, and recent works are presented as offerings to the viewer — some are pictures merely of colorful flowers, offerings laid upon the altar of beauty — and also present self-exploratory critique of his earlier work in icon-creation, quietly questioning this process of fame-creation that he’s been involved in for so long. Pivot to his recent figurative work blossoming from the same impulse towards self-questioning: photographs which examine ideas located in a passage from the Bible describing the finality of the world, how men will be ‘lovers of the self’ during ‘terrible times in the last days.’ Uhmm… selfies, heard of ‘em? Staging young men holding camera phones in poses reminiscent of classical nudes, the pictures suggest a loneliness at the top of the world — the stripping down and sacrifice that it takes to get the ‘blue check,’ to become a ‘public figure,’ and to breathe that rarified air of celebrity, only to realize that you are all alone, naked and shivering on a mountaintop. From a man who understands the incredible power of the camera, it is a beautifully expressed warning to a society bewitched by self-obsessed fame chasing.
The poor chap has had quite a go of it. Showing up in New York in his early teens, LaChapelle was immediately swept up in the Studio 54 scene — his connection to that storied venue gives him incredible cultural clout nowadays, since it could very well be argued that Studio 54 and the crew that gathered there were the acme of the American century, an amalgamation of decadence that is looked back at in the same starry-eyed way as when we look at celebrity itself. And then: AIDS. The epidemic swept New York and the world, and LaChapelle, like many, stood by as it took virtually all of his friends and lovers, unsure of when and if it would take him next. This doomsday pressure is how he first embraced faith in the imagery of his work, spending all the money he had on custom angel wings, which appear again and again in his work. He went over a decade without getting tested for HIV himself, only to be hit with the overwhelming surprise when he finally did bite the bullet and get tested that he in fact didn’t have it, a moment that surely felt like divine intervention. He’s recounted in several interviews that he had a vision of a world-changing plague that would wipe out those he loved, and his premonition ultimately came true. “What’s true of all the evils of the world is true of plague as well,” wrote Albert Camus, “It helps men to rise above themselves.” LaChapelle did just that, and a plague was what first propelled him.
It is somehow not surprising to learn that LaChapelle is a man of God who has had the experience of premonition. His photographs lend themselves to the interpretation of a divine visitation or an angelic vision — that hyperreal quality they all share is like seeing with crystal clarity into the mind’s eye, perhaps even the mind of God. For his celebrity portraits, folded into this visionary style is a cheekiness, and an understanding of making the self into a commodity that the stars seem to be aware of — there is a sense of control they have over the creation of these images, that they have allowed this dashing photographer to strip them down in order to grant them the status of icon.
They are essentially advertisements for the worship of celebrity. Have you ever heard of the phrase ‘Adcult,’ coined by James Twitchell? He has a whole book about it! Allow me to elucidate: in an increasingly diverse society, shopping is essentially the only thing we all have in common, ergo “advertising has become the central institution in American society,” Twitchell argues. It’s like a binding force for our world centered around buying, selling, trading, rinse, repeat. He cleverly points out that advertisements are not only ubiquitous and anonymous, but that they seamlessly fuse with the culture as well as shape it in the process, while all the while offering a distinct magic:
“Advertising is the gospel of redemption in the fallen world of capitalism… advertising has become the vulgate of the secular belief in the redemption of commerce. In the most profound sense advertising and religion are part of the same meaning-making process: they occur at the margin of human concern about the world around us, and each attempts to breach the gap between us and objects by providing a system of understanding. Whereas the Great Chain of Being organized the world of our ancestors, the marketplace of objects does it for us. They both promise redemption: one through faith, the other through purchase. But how are order and salvation affected? By magical thinking, pure and simple.”
LaChapelle’s work echoes with an awareness, if subconscious, of the ubiquitous power of the market in which we all exist and the effect of the image-as-ad to shape our consciousness as a society. Part of this power structure is the commodification of the self, which is an essential step on the way to celebrity, to being essentially an ad yourself. But while the argument is relevant to the system in which LaChapelle exists and critiques, the photographs that take on explicitly religious subjects manage to capture a genuine transcendence. The cheekiness and fancy is what makes them palatable to a cynical audience, but LaChapelle’s authentic religiosity is what makes them remarkably compelling as artworks that exist outside of time. Even the still lives and landscapes that LaChapelle shows in this exhibit, which were a kind of quiet surprise, are contemplations of building a world beyond the forces of capitalism, a kind of heavenly escape from the machine he admits, by implication, being a part of. The eerily beautiful gas stations in the middle of a post-human jungle are reminiscent of an I Spy, offering a world to step into for a sweet breath of imaginary air and little aha! moments of discovery.
LaChapelle’s is a glowing world of candy-hued magic and specters of the future. If you come across a wall with a conspicuous blank spot, it might be because I ate one. I couldn’t help myself! The flavor, you ask? A little like licorice, dark and sweet, but otherwise: indescribably luminous. My belly has been glowing for a week! My compliments to the chef.
All images: ©David LaChapelle, courtesy of Fotografiska New York.
Celeste, Reni. ‘Screen Idols: The Tragedy of Fallen Stars.’ Journal of Popular Film and Television, Spring 2005.
Camus, Albert. The Plague. Knopf, 1948.
Twitchell, James B. Adcult USA. New York: Columbia UP, 1996