David Lachapelle’s Gas Stations Series

I have been mildly obsessed with David Lachapelle’s works ever since my first year of undergraduate. His shiny portraits of pop icons such as Lady Gaga and Katy Perry blend the cheap shine of colourful, injection-mould plastic with references to the old masters of European art (Botticelli makes an appearance in more than one picture). In his Gas Stations series, Lachapelle’s early career as a commercial photographer resurfaces in new clothes as he imbues petrol forecourts with a puzzling aura of mysticism.

The series was executed in 2012 and portrays shiny gas stations, glowing in the midst of what appears to be a tropical jungle. All the pictures showcase clear branding belonging to the oil giants of our time: Shell, BP, and Chevron among others. Indeed, some of these images may be mistaken for adverts from Lachapelle’s early career as a commercial artist (see for example his iconic Schweppes commercial featuring Uman Thurman). Even the lush vegetation may be interpreted as a display of the corporate social responsibility initiatives many oil companies have embarked on in recent years.

The unusual setting removes the forecourts from their expected urban backdrop. Deep in the humid, dark jungle, it appears that nature has taken over once again as there is no trace of customers, operators, or passing cars. While Lachapelle plays with a post-apocalyptic trope, he does not indulge in this scenario as the stations are brightly lit and ready for trade. They are alluring visions in the wilderness, eerie but weirdly inviting.

Lachapelle’s postmodern style makes use of a vast array of visual references. The modern, neon-bright branding mixes with the slightly retro style of the pumps, similar to those painted by earlier American artists such as George Hughes, Norman Rockwell, and Edward Hopper. The latter’s works resonate particularly with the Gas Stations series, where the lack of characters evokes a cathartic sense of loneliness found throughout Hopper’s oeuvre.

In the photographs, nature has seemingly overtaken the old remnants of human civilization, which lie eons away from our concrete-filled cities. It is hard to pin down the artist’s message. Is it maybe a mildly optimistic commentary on climate change? Or could it be a humorous take on what is going to be left of humankind once man will disappear from the surface of the Earth?

If you want to read more about David Lachapelle, have a look at another blog post on the topic here.

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Alessandro M. Rubin Written by:

Cambridge History of Art alumnus. Passionate early-modernist, curious about contemporary art and aesthetic theory.

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