David LaChapelle is a renowned American photographer, whose glossy and shiny pictures have appeared on the covers of notorious magazines such as Rolling Stone, Vogue, and Vanity Fair. Now, Taschen has decided to celebrate LaChapelle’s recent oeuvre with two sumptuous catalogues, which offer a significant insight into the artist’s style and interests. Lost + Found and Good News show a variety of themes, from sacred to profane, from beautiful to grotesque, in a dazzling mosaic of inventive visions which leave the viewer overwhelmed and thirsty for more sickening images. In this post, I will consider religious themes in LaChapelle’s work to outline their role in his prolific production.
American Jesus: Hold Me Carry Me Boldly
LaChapelle’s pictures feature several characters from contemporary popular culture, employed to create provocative reinterpretations of classical artworks. For example, his Amanda Lepore series mimics Andy Warhol’s Marilyn and Liz Taylor prints, turning the famous LGBT icon into a contemporary pop diva. On the other hand, American Jesus investigates the wanton meddling of pop culture in religion. He reinvents classical compositions from the old masters to create something that is utterly familiar and yet uncannily alien for the Western viewer. The Michael Jackson Pietà is a powerful example, as the pop-star claims God’s spot. The artist has replaced the Virgin with a Christ-like figure holding the singer’s body. To some extent, this reminds of the Latin literary tradition of the investiture, when the older poet would leave his place to a younger successor. Here, the photographer portrays the passage from one divinity to a new one. The artwork overthrows the viewer’s expectations and uses paradox to create lasting memories.
In American Jesus, the pop-star assumes the dramatic traits of a divinity, an apotheosis of American pop culture which questions the social nature of what we call holy. LaChapelle presents a new cult and new forms of worship. The emphatic relation between people and their idols is made into a new form of dogma by the photographer, elevating it to the status of sacred art. Similarly, the Last Supper references one of the most-known compositions of Western art. While the figure of Jesus follows traditional representations, he is surrounded by a group of contemporary-looking men as the apostles. Their clothes and fashion refer to American visual culture and characterises them as belonging to a specific timeframe. The effect is shocking since it overlooks centuries of idealised iconography. In Christian art, saints are often portrayed as atemporal figures in order to highlight their belonging to a higher dimension of reality. LaChapelle breaks this norm and displays an unsettling vision where the figures are fully shaped by their historical identity.
Archangel Michael – “And no message could have been any clearer”
LaChapelle’s polished works often resemble an advertisement set. Each image is constructed so as to avoid a candid effect. The scene is staged masterfully, showing the process of construction. In fact, the photographer is involved in several commercial projects too, including the famous Schweppes advert with Uma Thurman in 2011. He does not hide the artistic process, rather he makes the explicitness of his pictures their most-evident characteristic. He also plays with the alluring excesses of consumerist culture, whose forms are meant to appear grotesque and overtly sensual. For instance, Archangel Michael shows a conscious use of tackiness, the statue of Satan being a mere dummy left on the ground. The bold composition recalls Baroque depictions of saints and their miracles, which adopt a straightforward and unmistakable visual language. LaChapelle depicts the religiosity of a pop universe, whose bold and colourful inhabitants are outshined by the cheaply-made idols of a consumerist world.
David LaChapelle playfully depicts the relation between religion and contemporary pop culture. He masterfully mixes a variety of references from Western visual culture, challenging the meaning of sacred and fostering further reflections about the boundary between admiration and idolatry. As in a Baroque piece, the photographer plays with illusion and literal, leading the viewer firmly into a staged aesthetic experience.The grotesque “realness” of the artists’ creations emphasises the overall power of his pictures and provides an alienating experience for the spectators, whose vision of the world is forced into a coercive interaction with the present. All expectations are betrayed by surprising compositions, the excess of details, over-saturated colours, and most-imaginative aberrations of traditional subjects. LaChapelle’s genius lies in the careful balance between these sickening features, which end up giving birth to rich and intense masterpieces.