The Wall Street Journal July 15, 2010

POP ART: JACKSON AS ARCHANGEL

The Paul Kasmin Gallery in Chelsea happens to reside next door to the nightclub Marquee. This meant the opening of photographer David LaChapelle's show "American Jesus" Tuesday coincided with the launch party for the soundtrack to MTV's "Jersey Shore." You wouldn't be faulted for having trouble telling the difference. Was that Snookie or just a drag queen dressed like Snookie? Was that Mike "The Situation" Sorrentino or just another one of Mr. LaChapelle's abtastic friends? Does it matter? Of course not. Just like on the Jersey Shore, in Mr. LaChapelle's universe, pretty much anything goes.

Hence, in "American Jesus," there are images of Jesus holding a wilted Michael Jackson; Mr. Jackson as archangel standing on the devil; and Mr. Jackson holding hands with Our Lady of Lords, played, in this scenario by Czech model Hana Soukupová.

"It was the craziest shoot I've ever been on," said Ms. Soukupová, who helped celebrate the opening along with the artist Julian Schnabel, Lenny Kravitz and a few men dressed like Lady Gaga.

Rory Tahari, for one, was particularly excited to meet Mr. LaChapelle. "I have two of his photographs," Ms. Tahari said. "I think he's amazing. I think he predicted the death of Michael Jackson. He was working on images of him a year before he died. And his underwater series? I think it predicted the oil spill. You look at those photos and you're just like, Whoa."

"Do you think he can predict what stocks we should invest in?" asked Ms. Tahari's friend, the attorney Robert Savino.

Mr. LaChapelle greeted friends dressed in a long white—well, no one was quite sure what it was.

"I asked him, 'Is that a dashiki or a caftan?" said Bill Powers, who has recently appeared on Bravo's "Work of Art." "And he said, 'I'm going to Israel on Friday, and I said, 'Alright, OK.'"

Many of Mr. LaChapelle's friends retired to the High Line Room at the Standard Hotel for a celebratory dinner. The room itself was dressed with particular elegance: long flickering candlesticks and pure white calla lillies. A steady soundtrack of Mr. Jackson's lighter ballads emanated from a stereo. It was not the kind of elegance one would expect from Mr. LaChapelle, who once photographed a naked Lil' Kim with Louis Vuitton logos all over her body.

"It seems fancy," said art dealer Alberto "Tico" Mugrabi on the way in, "but it could go unfancy at any second."

Indeed, like the click of a digital camera, almost as soon as dessert was served, things went unfancy. Mr. LaChapelle started lip synching and dancing to a few of his favorite Michael Jackson and Jackson 5 numbers, including "Never Can Say Goodbye," "I'll Be There," and "Speechless."

"I have so many favorite Michael Jackson songs. I have one for every emotion," he said. "It's like the Beatles, I can't choose one."

With reporter and host loosened up, it was time to ask the photographer what exactly he was wearing. "I'm wearing a—what is this called?" he asked a friend across the table, "a Jelabia. I came to New York and I discovered that all my clothes are in Hawaii, and the ones that I brought with me are stinky, so I just found this in my apartment. It's my ex-boyfriend's and I've been wearing it all day. Underneath is a dance belt from my friend in the Paul Taylor Company. I'm sorry, I'm bad at soundbites."

It didn't quite matter because soon enough, the jelabia or dashiki or caftan was off. Mr. LaChapelle was dancing shirtless, as were several of his friends, including septuagenarian art writer Anthony Haden Guest. The transsexual Amanda Lepore was completely naked, but that's not really news. Still, it was quite the scene.

Ernst Lieb, president and CEO of Mercedes-Benz USA and his wife, Petra, who commuted in for the night from Mahwah, N.J., watched in awe. "I'm thinking maybe we should move to New York if this happens every night," said Ms. Lieb.

By Marshall Heyman

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