David LaChapelle

February 10, 2009By Heidi EllisonArchive

Irreality Show

david lachapelle, hotel de la monnaie, Paris
“Statue” from the “Deluge” series (2007). © David LaChapelle

What happens when Jeff Koons meets Andy Warhol meets Pierre et Gilles? You get David LaChapelle. Call him camp, kitsch and commercial all you like, but his giant photographic mises en scene are still a lot of fun to look at and might even provoke a thought or two here and there.

The current retrospective at the Hôtel de la Monnaie presents his glossy, color-saturated photos in the splendid setting of this 18th-century neoclassical building, providing a nice contrast between modern baroque works and an antique setting, à la the recent Jeff Koons exhibition at the Château de Versailles.

The setting is fitting in another way: as the home of the Musée de la Monnaie, keeper of the history of French currency, it couldn’t be more appropriate for LaChapelle’s critiques of the effects of filthy lucre.

The first review I heard of this show was on the radio, and the reporter was laughing out loud at (not with) LaChapelle, mentioning such images as a pair of gilded pigs engaged in sexual intercourse and questioning whether the artist was spoofing or honoring consumer society. Other critics here were not much kinder, but I would be willing to bet that this exhibition will be a big hit with the public.

Yes, it’s true that LaChapelle, who started out as a celebrity photographer working for Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine, uses celebrities in his photos – everyone from Madonna and Paris Hilton to David Bowie and Leonardo DiCaprio – but no one could accuse him of flattering them when he give the pictures titles like “Hi Bitch Bye Bitch”(Paris Hilton). He even mocks his former boss with a spoof of Warhol’s famous image of Marilyn using the transsexual model Amanda Lepore, with her grotesquely ballooning lips and extreme makeup.

Okay, some of these pictures are just silly and too obvious, e.g., the giant hamburger crushing a woman in the street or the car crashed into a giant Coca-Cola can, but others are far more sophisticated. The most successful are the more recent, elaborately staged series “Destruction and Disaster,” “Heaven to Hell” and “Deluge” (inspired by Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel scene). The photos in the “Auguries of Innocence” series, inspired by the William Blake poem, are wall-sized, three-dimensional pop-up sets.

Other special effects include a cellphone with a blinking red light half-concealed in the hand of a black Christ figure (the device saves the picture from being too facile) and sheep that go baa-baa when visitors walk close to their image.

In no case miss the two highly amusing and well-made films showing the making of two of the large-scale images, in which LaChapelle himself plasters the walls of nighttime Los Angeles with casting-call notices for “Deluge,” Courtney Love bitches at the photographer while posing as the Virgin Mary in a Pietà scene, and a set is photographed while on fire.

Some characterize LaChapelle’s work as surreal, but I think curator Gianni Mercurio’s description of it as an “irreality show” is more apt, calling to mind as it does the grotesqueries of our culture, which LaChapelle represents so well.

With such images as Caesar’s Palace, Gucci and Burger King going down with the ship in “Deluge,” is LaChapelle biting the hands that have fed him so well – he does advertising work for many of the same brands whose logos are being destroyed – or is he actually helping to promote them, based on the principle that “there’s no such thing as bad publicity”? Let’s hope it’s the former.

Heidi Ellison

Monnaie de Paris: 11, quai de Conti, 75006 Paris. Métro: Pont Neuf, Saint-Michel or Odéon. Tel.: 01 40 46 56 66. Open daily, 10:30 a.m.-7 p.m. (until 10 p.m. on Monday and Friday). Admission: €10. Through May 31. www.monnaiedeparis.fr/musee/

© 2009 Paris Update

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