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The Rize of David LaChapelle

January 21, 2011 by Phil Tarley in Artists, Photography with 0 Comments

WORDS Phil Tarley
IMAGES David LaChapelle, Courtesy Fred Torres Collaborations

Phosphorescent, over-saturated color pours out of his mind’s eye and filters through a mad-hysterical kind of Photoshop-ed synesthesia. Sex and sensuality, political commentary, and pop iconography fuse together in David LaChapelle’s wondrous, sometimes numinous world of epic, large-format photography.

Exhilarating and exhausting (excess is never enough), many of LaChapelle’s best photographs can be both alluring and abhorrent — at the same time.

DLC zaps the pop zeitgeist. His Hollywood divas like Paris Hilton and Angelina Jolie vie with Amanda Lepore and Lil’ Kim, in cutting-edge reinterpretations of the female form – and I do mean cutting edge. Little Kim’s lips and hips, engorged with silicone and implants and Lepore’s countless sex-change surgeries make us redefine what a beautiful woman can or can not be.

His eerie underwater series, and his personal favorite, Deluge – soon to be eclipsed by an even bigger waterwork, The Raft – explore hydrodynamics in search of a new visual domain.

LaChapelle is everywhere. His travel schedule is dizzying. “I will be opening a show in Turkey that’s moving from the Museum of Contemporary Art Tel Aviv, then I’m going to Asia for three weeks – we have some great exhibitions planned for China, so it’s a little hectic.”

When I met David in the winter of 2009 at the shows that surround Art Basel Miami Beach 2009, he was bursting out from a howling cacophony of art anarchy. LaChapelle was all over Miami like an art angel, bedeviling the event with magnificent works that appeared at the most important venues. He had a one-man exhibition at Wolfgang Roth & Partners and had three Michael Jackson pieces in the main show at ABMB. He also created a surreal, intensely compelling image, Berlin Stories, for German automaker Maybach, who had commissioned Lachapelle to celebrate and commemorate their historic and contemporary line of luxury cars for their Daimler Art Collection.

The lucrative alliance between artists and purveyors of high-end luxury goods has morphed into a major trend. Murakami went to Louis Vuitton, David Lynch went to Cartier, and LaChapelle went to Maybach. DLC had a rough assignment: how to promote his sponsor’s wares and push his photography into new artistic territory. He did both, and he did it with his leitmotif over-the-top hyper-sensuality in both the mural and in the opulent party David staged at The Raleigh, one of South Beach’s most glamorous hotels. The artist meticulously styled the elements of the party exactly like the 1932 New Year’s Eve party depicted in Berlin Stories, replete with a carnival of period dancer-swimmers (synchronized Busby Berkeley-like performers), submerged in The Raleigh’s Art Deco pool. Serenaded by a jazzy ‘30s swing band, the event was a kind of performance art extension of the party depicted in the mural it celebrated – all done in art overdrive.

After Miami, David was the Guest Host at the photo l.a. vernisage 2009. This year, LaChapelle is again participating in the January event as a member of the Honorary Host Committee. Fair Director and gallery owner Stephen Cohen talked to me about David’s work.

“Los Angeles has never been shy about itself. Glitz and glamour has always been its bread and butter. Stepping it up quite a few notches from George Hurrell is David LaChapelle.”

“Last year along with LACMA, we thought David was a great choice for photo l.a.’s guest of honour, because of his long-time commitment to photography. David’s style has made an impact on how celebrity is seen by the public. It’s become part of the public conversation. He has so many iconic images that stay with people. They might not know his name, but they know his image and the celebrity and that’s what it’s all about. He has taken photography to a new level. If L.A. had a photographic style, it would be his.”

When Heaven to Hell, David’s latest book from Taschen, barreled onto my desk to review, I got to take a fresh look at this man’s torrid body of work. Brimming with insouciant, sassy sexuality, LaChapelle’s world is a lexicon of luminous pop-culture, an uber-world of brilliant, fine art photography. Studying the eye-popping double truck images of Heaven To Hell renders David’s unique perspective as that of a visionary- Pop; yes – but flush with ironic pleasures and bizarre cultural parodies.

Seeding this artist’s cosmology are tributes to the photographic worlds of Diane Arbus, Pierre et Gilles, Terry Richardson, Kenneth Anger, and James Bidgood – with constant homage to Da Vinci and Warhol. Cascading from his consciousness is a non-stop parade of celebrities, often referencing other celebrities. Amanda Lepore does Elizabeth Taylor; Pamela Anderson does Bardot; Decaprio does Brando. LaChapelle also references iconic movie culture, with a series on Taxi Driver and another on Scarface. And then, in Jesus is my Homeboy, there are images deifying the most deified celebrity on the planet; one of DLC’s most notorious and strangely compelling works.

When I decided to look at LaChapelle’s feature film Rize, a dance documentary shot entirely in South Central Los Angeles, it was like unlocking the gates to heaven.

Rize (2005), a Sundance favorite and DLC’s only feature film, functions as a kind of codex of creation, a stylistic key that can be used to fathom this artist’s work, enabling us to parse his preoccupation with Los Angeles and its culture. The film opens with clips of actual footage of the streets on fire during one of Los Angeles’ many riots. L.A. burning, police over-reactions, and dystopian cityscapes can also be seen in many of LaChapelle’s still images.

Out from a bullet-ridden culture of gangstas, drive-byes, and homeboys, comes Krumping, a desperado style of ghetto dance, performed by lithe, heavily muscled black bodies dripping with sweat and fever. In Rize, we see the computer used to enhance the color saturation of the image, another LaChapelle hallmark. The celebration of muscled, black bodies that dance across the frame come also to inhabit other DLC works, like Guilty Pleasures. The homeboy culture laid down in Rize reappears in the Jesus Is My Homeboy series. Los Angeles’ gang-thug culture is clearly a totemic marker, a touchstone the artist returns to again and again.

LaChapelle’s Hollywood studio is a Byzantine warren of offices, stages, cycloramas, computer retouch and composite stations, and costume and prop rooms. Hard at work are a dozen assistants and devotees – it’s a light day. As George, the studio manager, tours me through the facility, we ascend to the second floor. Lining the staircase are shelves of archives detailing the craftsmen and resources used to make each image, which LaChapelle can source for subsequent jobs.

George affably escorts me up into David’s dark, wood-paneled office and private screening room. Caulked by hand on a mirror over a Baroque mantle is, “Love as much as you can. Laugh as a child. Ride your bike.” A large black and white photo of Andy Warhol, David’s muse and mentor, casually leans against the mirror. And I get it. I am in The Factory; not Andy’s but David’s version of it.

Trying to interview David LaChapelle is like asking questions of a force of nature. David’s words come tumbling out gushing faster than I can keep up. I let him take the lead. He organizes our meeting visually, flipping through pages of photographs in his countless books and stopping on an image to tell its story. How Faye Dunaway generates tears (she declines make-up, she acts); how shooting Milton Berl, a bit crotchety in old age, necessitates David assigning a scantily clad model to flirt with him – so Berl can be silly and David can get great poses. “Always try to make things as engaging as you can for the person you are photographing. Keep it fun.” We come to a photo of Tom Jones, and David remembers how he saved the film from a lab mistake by using one of the first computers made for retouching, with a hard drive as big as a boiler room.

David is the consummate circus ringmaster. He is in total control. Yet with scores of elements marshaled to his directorial will, he retains the remarkable ability to let go like a child at play and be completely “in the moment,” free to improvise and create.

David LaChapelle is on fire. His obsessive iconography is matched only by his burning desire to make art, to make film, to make parties, to see and be seen everywhere all the time. Planet LaChapelle is a visceral and procreative non-stop ejaculation of art spewing out all over the universe.

More information about David LaChapelle can be found at: www.lachapellestudio.com

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Phil Tarley

About Phil Tarley

Phil Tarley is a fellow of the American Film Institute, an artist member of the Los Angeles Art Association and writes about contemporary art, pop culture and photography for Fabrik Magazine. He curates at the A C Gallery in Los Angeles and founded Round Hole Square Peg, a biannual, international survey of LGBTQ photography shown at the Photo LA. Tarley is also a critical essayist for Katharine T. Carter & Associates, an art advisory service that  helps artists obtain museum exhibitions. His personal series of political and ethnographic videos is housed in the permanent collection of the New York Public Library and has screened in film festivals and museums like the American Film Institute,and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. In 2009, under his nom de porn, Phil St. John, Tarley was inducted into the Gay Porn Hall of Fame for his 20-year producing and directing career. His writing and photography have also appeared in the LA Times, the LA Weekly, The WOW Report, Adventure Journal, the Advocate, Frontiers, Adult Video News, Genre, Instinct and American Photo Magazine. His book, Going down On Cuba: Notes from An Underground Traveler,  is slated to be published later in the year by Fabrik Press.  

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