From celebrity photographer to anti-capitalist artist, LaChapelle's Paris retrospective illustrates his 20-year career in eye-popping colour, says Syma Tariq.
"The apocalypse is sold to us on television," photographer David LaChapelle says, sitting in the hall of the Hôtel de la Monnaie, a pre-revolutionary building next to the Seine, and avoiding eye contact with the numerous French journalists who eagerly encircle him. Lachapelle is in Paris to open his long-awaited retrospective in a building normally reserved for housing French coins and medals.
In the main room stands a fantastical pop-up mural showing LaChapelle's own version of apocalypse: consumers laid out nude and clearly in anguish, exotic luxury products and humping golden pigs. Walking us through the exhibition, Lachapelle describes the new work, Decadence: The insufficiency of All Things Attainable (2008), as "anti-commodity art". He nods towards another series, The Crash (2008), four supersized photographs, each printed on mounted cardboard. They display damaged American cars stacked on top of each other, each with a similar title: Enhanced Performance; Intelligent Decadence; Boundless Freedom; Luxurious Power. His latest work, he says, is "inspired by the idea of negative money. I'm taking this as a chance and an opportunity to say something."
This anti-capitalist stance come from a man who has, of course, made millions from fashion shoots, music videos, global-brand marketing and portraits of superstars. His back catalogue is enormous, and the retrospective, which features over 200 works, has definite highlights. Paris Hilton: Hi Bitch, Bye Bitch (2004) and photographs of Jesus Christ surrounded by homeboys (six portraits, 2003) drip with hip irony, while Awakened (eight portraits, 2007) depicts models in oversized clothing artfully submerged in water.
Yet while the older, poppier pictures have a self-referential aesthetic – two screens play footage of his team installing the exhibition – later works are quieter. Museum and Statue (both 2007) – the first of LaChapelle's photographs not to feature people – portray the ruination of tradition and faith, the first by depicting a flooded art gallery, the second two marble statues, again flooded. They apparently reflect LaChapelle's search for redemption. The man who once shot a controversial cover image of Britney Spears for Rolling Stone magazine now seems to want to move away from commodity culture.
Yet LaChapelle's underlying style has not changed. The grotesque and the beautiful still compete and the images remain full of visceral drama and enhanced colours – reflecting over 20 years of working for magazines and television channels. Holy War (2008) is a grand posterboard panorama displaying two scenes side by side, each labelled in giant maroon letters: "HOLY" (a fiery scene of men dying in anguish) and "WAR" (Jesus in a sunlit field with children and lambs). The whole piece, which is about three metres long, is daubed in extreme colours and tiny flashing LED bulbs.
The series Recollections (2006) are the closest LaChapelle gets to real pastiche. This features photographs from the 1970s that were bought on eBay, scanned, and had details and figures added digitally. They portray a seemingly typical American family having a good time: enjoying a barbecue, partying in the living room, posing with the kids. Look closer, though, and you see unsettling details: a "Bush Kills" logo on a sweatshirt, an old woman vomiting in the background, a man holding a vicious-looking semi-automatic.
LaChapelle received his first professional commission from Andy Warhol, who encountered him while he was a bus boy in Studio 54. The influence is clear when viewing the Marilyn Monroe-like rendering of Amanda Lepore, the transsexual who is one of the photographer's muses (Amanda as Andy Warhol's Liz RED, 2007). "I want to communicate, without my work needing a paragraph on the wall next to it," he says.
By Syma Tariq