Tel Aviv Museum of Art
David LaChapelle: Postmodern Pop Photography
Tel Aviv, Israel
July 23 - December 22, 2010
David LaChapelle is known internationally and in Israel as a photographer, a director of documentaries, and a video artist whose colorful, smooth and extroverted style is filled with sensuality, fantasy, and dark adventure, packed with accessible popular images, and communicates with a wide and variegated audience. His images have appeared on the covers of scores of leading fashion and entertainment magazines, and LaChapelle himself has played a pivotal role in the promotion of prestigious brands, such as Diesel, Nokia, Tommy Hilfiger, etc. He has photographed hundreds of celebrities, always depicted provocatively, usually in full or partial nudity. Albeit daring, the nudity in these photographs does not result from him being trigger-happy, nor from an attempt to surprise and shock. Even in his commercial photographs, LaChapelle combines criticism of the marketing method whose objects are all those taking part in its constitution, including the target audience (of both the marketed product and the photograph as an object), and even the photographer himself as the one who creates the bait of the sales scheme.
When he photographed rapper Lil Kim for the Louis Vuitton campaign, the company logos were imprinted from head to toe on the dark skin of her naked body as a stamp. In this manner he created a sales-promoting attraction while, at the same time, placing the singer, himself, and the public of viewers and potential buyers as part of the array responsible for commodification of the female body. The "brand-name rush," the pursuit of fashionable designer items, the obsessive manicuring of the body in an attempt to resemble the figures on the catwalk or in the Oscars ceremony—all these rituals, as means to acquire a social status, make for the body's transformation into a label, and the conversion of the human figure into advertising space. LaChapelle does not sanctify the erotic facet in order to satisfy the voyeuristic urge or the curiosity of an audience of viewers and fans; he prefers to celebrate the freedom to use it precisely in order to liberate the representation of the body, primarily the female body, from the pornographic context, from erroneous interpretation, and from the inevitable association of nakedness with sin, or the mechanical association of passion and lust with sexual gratification, abuse, and humiliation.
LaChapelle's first exhibition in Israel, at Tel Aviv Museum of Art, contains very little nudity, which is not intended to promote sales, but rather to convey an idea. The show features only a few traces of LaChapelle's familiar body of work and the Hollywood icons. Exceptional in this context are three monumental photographs of Michael Jackson, two of them conduct an explicit dialogue with death: one portrays the singer collapsed in the arms of another man, who takes the place of Mary in the Pietà pose; the other portrays Jackson as the Archangel Michael defeating Satan. LaChapelle distances Jackson's controversial personality far from the juicy gossip and horror estates in three images which shift the discussion of the legend—that accompanied the singer's intricate biography and continues the mystery around the story of his death—into a new, religious context. Most of the photographed subjects in the exhibition are neither actors, singers, or major glamorous figures, but rather models whose very anonymity makes for a criticism devoid of gossipy preaching, of ascription to a specific figure or episode; criticism directed at a social moral content which converses with life and the art world.
To some extent, LaChapelle is considered an outsider in the art world and in the world of commercial photography alike. He tends to add subversive ideas and unusual aspects to the marketed product. In an advertising campaign for coffee, for example, he chose to emphasize the fact that it is a stimulant, and alluded to the fetishistic dimension inherent in the coffee ritual, complete with the pompous jargon associated with it, which he compared to the pompous ritualism of sadomasochistic rituals. LaChapelle is an exceptional practitioner in the field of advertising, among other reasons, since he frequently incorporates in his works metaphors with a moral, religious motifs, and familiar elements from works by the great masters, from the Middle Ages to the present. Such references are foreign to the world of magazine advertising and the clean and alienated high-gloss language characterizing the genre. In the critical-cultural discourse typifying the contemporary art world, and especially contemporary photography, on the other hand, there is avoidance, nearly to the point of loathing, of the use of canonical references and their direct interpretation as an allegory for existential values. LaChapelle performs an iconoclastic act in the critical discourse. He avoids academic understatement and educated insertion of cynical preaching into ideological discussions of contemporary theory. At the same time, he does not flaunt his clear preference for mundane language rife with hackneyed symbols and cliché images; instead he simply uses it with rich and piercing, stylized creative freedom. He stages wild scenes and dark adventure stories, replete with images and events, arranged in one-shot across the entire frame, some of them requiring more than one viewing to grasp fully.
LaChapelle's work is interspersed with humor, at times even irony, but it is entirely devoid of cynicism. The Crash works are all but meant to be a cynical comment on the flux of catastrophes passing before our eyes in shocking news images to which we have become so accustomed; nor are they oriented toward perversion and dark passions as we know them, for example, from James Ballard's eponymous novel or from David Cronenberg's film by the same title based on it. LaChapelle's crashes address an economic crash, the collapse inherent in the sanctified capitalistic ideal, and therefore they are accompanied by pathos-filled titles originating in slogans from the marketing campaigns of the depicted cars (The Crash: Boundless Freedom, 2008; The Crash: Intelligent Decadence, 2008; The Crash: Enhanced Performance, 2008).
The same applies to the banknotes (Negative Currency: 100 Shekel as a Negative, 2010). These are not replicated in series, like Andy Warhol's dollar bills from 1962, and although, similarly to early Pop, their very appearance in the photograph conceals a criticism of the values celebrated by affluent society, the approach to the object in his work is fundamentally different with regard to the art world and its products, as well as to consumerist society and its commodities. In the presented bill, in contradistinction to Warhol's endless replication of dollars, the intention is neither to exhaust the eye, nor to indicate the lack of a focal point in the work or the limitations of the printing technique as opposed to the well-oiled and exact capital mechanism. LaChapelle uses the banknotes themselves as the negative in the enlarger, allowing one to discern in the print details which, ordinarily—namely in ordinary use—remain invisible. The two sides of the banknote appear together and in reversal colors at the final print thus associate with art's intricate age-old confrontation of the paradox of two-dimensional representation of a reality which has volume. A discussion that took a significant turn in post-Impressionism and in Cubism after Cézanne, as the painterly surface was opened to concurrent presentation of several perspectives, through fragmentary and holographic panoramic photography, to 3D cinema and state-of-the-art virtual reality systems.
The two dimensions are superimposed into a single photograph, in fact opting for the traditional option of multiple exposures and their printing into a single photograph, a process which distorts the conveyed data, yet generates a new occurrence transpiring almost only on the plane of the work. In the case of the banknote, the simultaneous manifestation of front and back is familiar from the gesture common among merchants and sellers, who hold the note against the light to reaffirm its originality by means of transparency and the water marks imprinted in it. In the context of authenticity and commercialization of art works, in his spectacular banknote photographs the artist furnishes us—consciously and in carefully-controlled dosage—with arguments and food for thought in the futile debate among art lovers regarding the commercial apparatus and the pricing and evaluation methods in the art market. The series of banknotes embodies the answer to a range of superfluous questions, such as regarding the price of the work and the value of the note documented in it. Hence it projects various peculiar comparisons between Picasso's broken portraits or the color drippings in Jackson Pollock's action paintings and the early scribbling of any child. The banknote assumes a new appearance which calls for profound perusal of the work's details, and therefore also close acquaintance with the original—the note which passes hands, folded in one's wallet or stuck in the pocket—which embodies purchasing power, a source of gratification, dispute and quarrels, economic power, "current money with the merchant," as it is called in Genesis (23:16), when Abraham purchased the Cave of Machpelah.
The negation of the subject, announced in post-modernism as the "death of the author," was already apparent in Pop with the transition from the concept of the author to that of the artist who operates within society, documenting and gathering existing images, and generating a collective subject of sorts. Thereby early Pop succeeded, despite its relinquishment of the single subject, to continue formulating basic feelings and sentiments, such as love, despair, and hope, which culminated in Roy Lichtenstein's comics works. On the other hand, Warhol's doctrine represented total renunciation of the emotional disposition accompanying the private or collective subject. The artist became a social historian, who documents and replicates images as cultural products. This inclination culminated with Warhol's alienated, cold, and technical treatment of death and disaster. The critics, for the most part, maintained that even death can be transformed into an emotionless image in a society inundated with images and information.
According to post-modernist criticism, and mainly Jean Baudrillard's theory of the simulacrum, the affinity between signs and their origins in reality weakens, and sometimes is even eliminated altogether; reality is replaced by a set of images and imitations, sometimes entirely devoid of origin. A flux of information rife with recurring images and ideas, that do not provide a clear notion regarding the state of affairs or events in the world; rather, they form a text, subject to interpretation, which serves as basis for the production of additional texts. The eye adapts itself to the dizzying whirl of the flickering images, as radical as they may be, and the mind becomes accustomed to their subversiveness. Television, internet, outdoor advertising from monumental street screens to the tiny screen on a cellular phone, reality TV shows and virtual reality—all these have liberated the image from certain limitations, technical, ethical or institutional, while at the same time sentencing it, obviously, to mediocrity resulting from the inability to shock in content or appearance. Back in the 1990s this freedom lost its power as a liberating view, art withdrew from its clinging to the simulacrum, to the non-graspable, to the constant flickering of images without hierarchy and of myriad realities elusively oscillating between the imaginary and the real; a tendency of return to the corporeal, to engagement with the human and social, with the politics of states and citizens, and not only that of representation and signifiers, became apparent.
LaChapelle grew up in an artistic setting which fully exploited the freedom of visual expression and the breaching of the boundaries of morality and censorship. At the same time, his approach does not quarrel with the numbness to which the liberty of the image has led. Instead it turns to the freedom of metaphor. LaChapelle strives to return the audience, the individuals in society, from their status as signifiers or as elements in the semiotic discourse, to their human existence, as active partners in the discourse, rather than the subjects discussed in it.
LaChapelle combines religious narratives in his work, which, throughout history, have been introduced into art by the church and were intended to preach and glorify its power. Devout Christianity used Christ to foster propaganda, and God—to provide an excuse for killing and wars under the guise of reward and punishment. LaChapelle opts for the tolerant facet of religion, focusing on sermons which preach for love, forgiveness, and acceptance of the other. Via re-makes of original works he produces a fresh statement of his own. A blend of kitsch with porn chic, incorporating Hollywood and the New Testament in a single frame, and combining comics with Baroque and dark perversions with a soft and vulnerable human nature. Courtney Love's Pietà photograph with a lookalike of her dead husband, Kurt Cobain, lead singer of Nirvana, as baby Jesus in her lap, sheds a new light on one of the best-known representations of death and compassion in the history of culture, drawing analogies between religion and faith, with the entire spectrum of feelings and emotions they invoke, and the adoration of rock stars and popular culture icons. The work's foreground features an infant with golden locks playing with giant dice-like blocks bearing the inscription "Heaven to Hell," sentencing the rock star, who committed suicide, to either eternal rest or everlasting torments, depending on the result. The stigmata marks on the arms and feet of the deceased are also the wounds bleeding due to heroin injection, thereby reinforcing the analogy between the ecstasy offered by religion and that granted by narcotics.
Marilyn Monroe, the quintessential sex symbol and the ultimate celebrity—the star who reflected a reality of suffering, exploitation, and a tragic death at a young age, alongside glamor and fame, drew the interest of Pop artists and their followers. Much like Japanese artist, Yasumasa Morimura, who quoted her renowned photograph with the fluttering skirt in a self-portrait as Marilyn, LaChapelle also treats her image in a gender context, yet adds another twist, since he quotes the star's figure not from a direct photographic documentation of her, but rather from the most hackneyed version of her portrait in Warhol's Pop piece. Morimura used Monroe for a game of sexual identities, as part of which he masqueraded and had his picture taken in the figure of famous actresses who became icons of the ultimate femininity (Marilyn Monroe, Brigitte Bardot, Greta Garbo). LaChapelle shifted from impersonation to the real thing, from cross-dressing to trans-gender.
As homage to Warhol's Marilyn, he photographed Amanda Lepore, a New York-based transsexual who gained fame mainly through his photographs where she starred proudly between photographs of models in leading fashion magazines. LaChapelle confronts the hypocrisy and double standard regarding sexuality, especially in America, striving to breach through the conservative approach which accepts and encourages plastic surgery and remodeling the body based on codes of beauty, while the transsexual language and sex-change operations are still foreign and appalling to it. Of all people, he depicted Lepore in a tribute to "natural birth" to accentuate the miracle, which is still a fantasy—the birth of a baby from the body of a transsexual. The one who was born in a male body yet rejected it, fulfilled her dream and became a woman, represents—despite the plasticity and artificiality of her body—an extraordinary truth and direct sincerity. LaChapelle depicts her in numerous photographs: in one she is presented with her back to Michelangelo's David, the ideal masculine form body; in another—as the figure of Marilyn Monroe, and in the famous photograph where she sniffs diamonds—as a model of radical addiction to glamor. In the photograph Death by Hamburger, 2001, a giant American burger, alluding to Claes Oldenburg's soft sculpture and the interplay of scale in Surrealism, strikes and crashes a slender girl, whose well-shaped legs alone manage to escape the bear hug of the epitome of junk food. The hamburger, however, is represented by blown-up vinyl, in heightened exaggerated duplication, as synthetic as the greasy patty and as megalomaniac as the aspirations of its makers. The criticism of some of the values consecrated in contemporary society—the addiction to fast food, the worship of anorectic models of beauty, and their destructive encounter—are conveyed via references to Pop and Surrealism, rather than by means of the original. LaChapelle, as an important documenter of Pop culture, also combines a note on Pop art in his approach, thereby infusing this concept with a new meaning.
TEL AVIV MUSEUM OF ART