David LaChapelle, the commercial photographer and pop video maker, wants to get away from the kitsch jokiness that made his reputation, and move on to something more socially aware. And, buoyed by sales of his prints at auction and good showings at art fairs in recent years, he wants to expand away from advertising and editorial work into the world called art. This London exhibition is one of the first based on this new ambition.
Imagine a double portrait based on Botticelli's Venus and Mars. In a slum house lined with heavily ironic washing powder boxes called "Sun", a goddess smirks as the exhausted god of war sleeps off her attentions. Tiny child soldiers, armed to the teeth, try to waken the inattentive deity to his martial work. A rendering of a mining scene is visible through a hole in the wall. A very Christian lamb wanders on one side. A (strangely familiar) diamond-encrusted skull lies overlooked on the other. If we can see nothing else, we can see immediately that we are supposed to be picking up clues. Blood diamonds, a dozen symbols of death and exploitation, a nasty little story about killer children . . . there's even a solid-gold hand grenade.
Am I out of date? Maybe the solid-gold grenade is the latest accessory for the gangsta-who-has-everything. Like much that LaChapelle does, this is so crude it hurts. It should be laughable. Coarse references to a hotchpotch of Renaissance painting, Greek myth, Andy Warhol and more, all depicted in cartoon-bright colours.
And yet. LaChapelle is a very considerable communicator, made fit by years in businesses where the quick transfer of memorable punchlines is the essence of success. He makes pictures packed with interpretable clues. He has made or remade the "image" for stars of film and music, for innumerable brands. Big commercial enterprises that require camouflage as "young" or "radical" have trusted him for 20 years or more. On that basis, it is no good dismissing his views on the commercial exploitation of Africa . He will make himself heard, whether he has anything to say or not.
The hypocrisy is breathtaking: to purport to examine one kind of exploitation while using a partially clothed Naomi Campbell (in one image) or a row of obviously sexually exhausted boys (in another) is beyond parody. Campbell, lest it be forgotten, has herself been accused of receiving a tainted diamond from former Liberian president Charles Taylor, now on trial in The Hague for atrocities committed in Sierra Leone.
Some of LaChapelle's preparatory notes are included in the show, rough little collages that superimpose documentary photographs of heavy labour on cute watercolour sketches of languid odalisques, male or female. In one of them, the figure of Venus (the part played by Campbell) from the "Rape of Africa" is captioned "Mecca Crying". No suggestion of this extra Islamic layer survives in the finished work, but LaChapelle has been playing around with religion for a long time, and still is.
On the opposite wall is a large composition entitled "Thy Kingdom Come", a campaign poster against the Catholic church. A Pope sits enthroned on a higgledy-piggledy pile of treasure – gold ingots, Old Masters and vast gems – while at his feet four nude boys, bound and blindfolded, lie bled out to a deathly grey pallor, soaked in bodily effusions. The message is that in the face of HIV/Aids the church's rules on sex and condom use represent a death sentence around the world.
Many people will be offended by this conflation of ideas, but for LaChapelle, as for many artists before him, offence is just another word for dollar. It is a recognised marketing tool in the world of contemporary art, and irreligion a subset of it. The uproar around Andres Serrano's "Piss Christ" has barely subsided, and that is now more than 20 years old. Serrano demonstrated over many works (and many years) that his was a spiritual inquiry of sorts, even if it smacked frankly of blasphemy to some. This exhibition of LaChapelle's looks like grapeshot compared to that. He can't miss. There is hardly an easier target than the church, and nobody really denies that disgusting things have been done in Africa in the name of western consumer culture.
LaChapelle's third target is yet more questionable. A triptych makes a saint of Michael Jackson, martyred presumably by our culture's destructive obsession with celebrity. Here's Michael as a pietà, a descent from the cross. Here's Michael in apotheosis, being brought up to heaven. Bright, even gaudy, these horrible pictures have precious little to redeem them, not even irony. For LaChapelle, the pros' pro in the business of exploiting celebrity, to make a set of pictures bemoaning what happened to his friend Jackson when he allowed celebrity to go to his head shows a moral compass gone haywire. It's cynical exploitation of Jackson, posing as a protest against precisely that.
LaChapelle has never made claims to inventing much. He stands as a synthesist of the ideas of others, a packager. Even his garish style is a compound, with elements of the likes of Jeff Koons and Pierre et Gilles over and above the open quotation from Old Masters and other source material. That style was excessive and bright, childishly rude, and always light – perfect for advertising, recognisable and unthreatening. As a commercial image-maker, the content used to be supplied. Now he wants to supply his own content, but these new political pictures don't bear examination.
Until May 25, www.robilantvoena.com
By Francis Hodgson