David Lachapelle After the Deluge

The David LaChapelle, After The Deluge exhibition at BAM from 14 October 2017 to 25 February 2018 is one of the largest and most important retrospectives ever dedicated to this great American photographer.

It looks back over his entire artistic output from the 1990s to the present day.

David LaChapelle’s artistic production can be viewed as two distinct periods, separated by his The Deluge cycle from 2006, but united by a shared narrative. Furthermore, the artist demonstrates a neo-humanist attitude with his perpetual concern for the fate of both mankind, whom he places at the heart of his work, and of art, which in his eyes should act as a means of communication and a way to flourish socially and spiritually – one that is accessible to all, drawing on the history of images in order to penetrate the recesses of popular culture.

THE SOCIETY OF THE SPECTACLE

It was LaChapelle’s first period that yielded the abundant output of images through which the artist (who in the past proclaimed himself to be a “high-speed, high-output photographer”) observed the chronicle of social habits and customs through the eyes of an anthropologist, photographing a decade that straddled the new millennium and making a hilarious, demystifying catalogue of what drove it.

From 1995 to 2005, he shot portraits of an array of celebrities from film, music and the underground, well-known faces as well as rising stars, politicians and models. But LaChapelle is less interested in portraying characters than in creating caricatures of situations or types of behaviour.

In his work, compulsive consumerism and neurosis combine with fetishism and narcissistic obsession, the commodification of feelings, bodies and objects, to convey a pessimistic view of human history – albeit one that is coloured by a comical and often caustic irony.

During this first period, his photos travelled the circuit of the fashion magazines.

The aim was never to settle for mere illustration, but to reach an audience as wide as possible and create an emotional shock in the viewer. However, in 2006 LaChapelle turned his back on high society, retreating to the windswept island of Maui, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean: “I had said everything I needed to say.”

APOCALYPTIC VISIONS

In 2006, during a stay in Rome, DavidLaChapelle had the opportunity to make a private visit to the Sistine Chapel. His artistic sensibility was turned on its head and he became aware of a need to mark a turning point in his output.

When he produced The Deluge – inspired by Michelangelo’s great fresco in the Sistine Chapel – and the pieces Museum, Statue Cathedral and Awakened, LaChapelle produced a work for the sole purpose of exhibiting it in an art gallery or museum.

These works were neither commissioned nor destined for the pages of a magazine or an advertising campaign. Above all, he approached a theme which, despite underlying all of his previous photographic cycles, now took the form of a narrative in which past, present and future finally collapse.

In the artist’s photographic series, themes like catastrophe, degeneration, vanity, illness, death and pity find their highest expression. Through them, the reinterpretation of the history of art becomes a powerful mechanism for reflection, because it superimposes the ecstasy of the vision – typical of great works from the past – over the lucid recording of the present, of the tragedy of humanity in its search for the meaning of its existence.

The Deluge marks a turning point. From here, the American photographer’s output takes a new path, both aesthetically and conceptually.

After The Deluge, the clearest sign of change is the disappearance from his series of a human presence: the living and breathing models who, in all of his previous work, occupied a central place in the composition of the set and in the message embodied by the image, disappear. The series entitled Car Crash, Negative Currencies, Earth Laughs in Flowers, Gas Stations, Land Scapes and Aristocracy all follow this new choice of form: LaChapelle erases all trace of flesh – a component so characteristic of his art.

All we find is a horrifying mockery of it in the fragments of wax in the Still Life series.

In some of David LaChapelle’s recent work, such as the Land Scapes and Gas Stations series, the artist shows us nature, only deeply distorted. In Land Scapes, power stations rise like mirages of light against backdrops of desert horizons below skies shaded with the tones of colourful dawns.

These industrial complexes are the result of an incredible task carried out with a team of model makers who normally produce film sets, but instead found themselves piecing together small-scale objects and recyclable materials like plastic cups, hair rollers, egg boxes, battery chargers, drinking straws, drinks cans and various kinds of containers.

LaChapelle then photographed these models in real landscapes like the Californian desert. LaChapelle’s ecological warning about mankind’s exploitation of natural resources describes a present projected into the future, where ancient chimeras and hallucinations take on attractive forms. This same warning cautions us that nature will have its revenge – a revenge that, as in all of LaChapelle’s work, eschews all cruelty instead capturing our attention with shades of surrealism. The Gas Stations series (also produced from models, but this time shot in Hawaiian forests) plays on the mysterious effect of distinctive landscapes, with service stations showing up out of context surrounded by dense tropical vegetation in which an enigmatic silence lingers.

THE RENAISSANCE AND THE NEW WORLD

If the Deluge series marks the passage to transcendent themes like the sublime and the divine, the meaning of existence and the relationship with death in dark, uncertain times engulfed by a notion of fear, in his most recent cycle of work, LaChapelle seems to want to produce his vision of a possible salvation.

In the Paradise series, which includes the pieces Once in the Garden, Secret Passage, Bellevue, Fleurs du Mal and Transfusion, LaChapelle reintroduces the human figure in search of a new relationship with nature, which the artist then sees fulfilled in his latest series, fittingly titled New World.

A distinctive element of these works is light, which in LaChapelle’s “paradise” becomes a mystical element: divine light engulfing blissful souls, who almost lose their bodily sheath, becoming forms that shine in their own light. LaChapelle’s paradise is not, however, a heavenly paradise, but rather an earthly paradise from the period preceding Adam and Eve’s original sin, in which divine transcendence and earthly sensuality are magically amalgamated.

The hallucinogen-infused staging incorporates references to a mixture of different cultures and religions. The spirit of these pieces, which were produced in Maui – one of the islands of Hawaii – is reminiscent of the earthly paradise and virgin landscapes evoked by Gauguin in Tahiti.

A surreal dimension of purity, authenticity and harmony is sought between humanity and nature – a far cry from the new industrialised world the artist was fleeing from.

These works explore archetypal human experiences ike prayer, love, birth – the empathic network that unites humanity, the world and the cosmos.

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