I have to admit that over the years I have never been the biggest fan of the work of David LaChapelle. It all just always seemed way too over the top for me (even if that was the point). However, his current show at Paul Kasmin, Still Life, not only changed that view but has a left a nudging feeling in the back of my mind that perhaps I should go back and take a second look at his previous work. Maybe I was missing something after all.
Still Life was born after LaChapelle visited a vandalized wax museum. The result are large photographs of dismembered wax figures of celebrities. There is a dark cynicism to these images, especially in light of LaChapelle’s earlier work, which was a lot of about the fantastical life of celebrities, and is only heightened if you are not aware of the back story of where the body parts came from (as I didn’t when I first saw the show). There is something incredibly delightful and gratifying in the darkness of these photographs that makes viewing them that much sweeter.
However, there’s certainly a point of view that is embedded into the characters. The title of the show, Still Life, has so many multiple meanings if you choose to look into them, one, of course being the lack of emotional attachment to the figures photographed. But its hard to see it that way. For example in Still Life: Madonna, 2009-2012, LaChapelle photographs the destroyed Madonna from torso upwards. She is without arms and a damaged hand missing four out five fingers sits unattached on the upper right hand corner. But her face is perfect. Her makeup is perfect. Her hair is perfect. Her signature cross is still hanging in the form of an earring in her left ear and she looks at us seductively. The image Still Life: Anonymous Politicians, 2009-2012 shows a conglomeration of heads, arms and various limbs that have all been thrown together into one jumbled pile. Perhaps by the initial cleaning crew at the museum or perhaps by LaChapelle. Regardless, this image, like the one of Madonna, seems to resonate with a certain feeling towards the real people behind their wax figure incarnations. And that is what makes this show so interesting. There is something grotesque and strange about these pictures when you first approach them. They are flesh toned and dismembered and while seeming vaguely familiar are also completely eerie and strange.
The show is expansive and so are the large photographs that make it up. There is a lot of information here. But that gives the viewer a lot to work through. In an era obsessed with celebrity, LaChapelle is both physically and philosophically breaking down what that obsession means while also creating visually fascinating images.
Text By Rebecca Roberts