In photographer David LaChapelle’s latest series, no actors or musicians pose in garish costume; no models act out fantastic scenes on exaggerated sets. In fact, no humans appear at all. Though LaChapelle is known for his highly-stylized images of high-profile figures—among them Elton John, Madonna, Lil’ Kim, and Björk—the photographs in the artist’s collection “Land SCAPE,” now on view at Paul Kasmin Gallery, find their subjects in hand-built models of gas stations and refineries.
There is a postapocalyptic element to the structures, which are shot in such a way so as to appear life-size. Glittering refineries, devoid of workers, sit alone in the desert or on vacant coastline. Elsewhere, in dense rain forest, we encounter glowing fuel pumps, empty of cars or customers, the jungle slowly encroaching. This notion of forgotten worlds is not lost on LaChapelle. “These buildings are artifacts of a fallen civilization,” he told AD on the eve of the show’s opening. “If some future archaeologist were to uncover a gas station, like our archaeologists uncover Incan temples, that would be an indicator of what made this civilization rise and fall.”
LaChapelle sees our rise and fall as tied closely to environmental issues, specifically an excessive use of fossil fuels. “Everything I do, everything I touch, the fact that we’re even here is because we discovered how to take oil, coal, natural gas from the earth,” the artist reflected. “We’ve been living in a very decadent way for quite some time.” But rather than infusing his work with doom and gloom or featuring images of actual destruction, the artist sought to seduce viewers into critical self-reflection with his trademark spectacle.
To that end, LaChapelle’s models were made with recyclable materials from his studio (“We just didn’t throw anything away for a year”), calling attention to the amount of refuse the real-life structures make possible. In one image, gleaming Rock Star energy drink cans act as avatars for pipes dumping waste into water. At a nuclear power plant, what look like baking tins become cooling towers. Cast in syrupy, candy-color light, the resulting photographs depict scenes that seem at once of the real world and belonging to an alternate, off-kilter universe. Says LaChapelle, “I didn’t want the buildings to look like they were made from a foundry. I wanted them to engage.”
Through March 1 at Paul Kasmin Gallery, 293 Tenth Avenue, New York; paulkasmingallery.com