David LaChapelle, Love Understood, 1989, Cibachrome, 40 × 31 1⁄2".

David LaChapelle, Love Understood, 1989, Cibachrome, 40 × 31 1⁄2".

David LaChapelle

A flight of stairs pointedly separated two dramatically different visions in David LaChapelle’s recent exhibition “Letter to the World.” On the gallery’s ground floor, verdant landscapes and colorful nymphs (all drawn from the artist’s experimental roots and noncommercial work) evoked a paradise lost, while a much darker scene unfolded in the basement (composed of more noncommercial work, in addition to LaChapelle’s better-known, iconic portraits of David Bowie, Miley Cyrus, and Lil’ Kim, among others). Among the twenty-nine pieces in the enchanted ground-floor hanging, seven were from the 1980s, made just as LaChapelle’s career as a celebrity photographer for Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine was taking off. He printed the bright colors and luminous flourishes in these early, primarily biblically themed photographs from handpainted, scratched, and cut negatives. And to glorify his latest subjects, the artist revisited this technique some thirty years later.

The early works stood out for their relative simplicity and comparatively humble, handmade quality. To create them, LaChapelle painted directly on the negative, often cutting out nude figures to produce graceful compositions on a dark background. Love Understood, 1989, showed a prostrate male couple, their blue and magenta bodies turned toward each other with only their hands touching. Floating above, against the black background, three green boa constrictors signal a forbidden love. LaChapelle’s more recent evocation of original sin, A New Adam A New Eve, 2017, had a decidedly slicker quality. Here, in a lush rain forest, two twilight-blue nudes—this time male and female—stand facing each other without touching. Fiery forces emanating from their genitals come together to form a whirling, glowing, multivortex tornado between them. Although it looks like a digital effect, this visceral love connection was also hand-drawn onto the negative. In line with LaChapelle’s signature big-budget commercial productions, and like most of his recent noncommercial work, A New Adam a New Eve was propped, lit, cast like a Hollywood film, and shot on location (in this case, Hawaii). The fact that LaChapelle hand-drew the supernatural love connection onto the negative (as opposed to using digital special effects) added a befitting visceral quality, but ultimately the photo shoot’s high production value overwhelms any sense that this work has anything to do with humility or handcraft. It’s a far cry from Emily Dickinson’s tender “letter to the world / that never wrote to me.”

Downstairs, LaChapelle presented a selection of commissioned portraits, the most outrageous of which was Showtime at the Apocalypse, 2013, created for a Kardashian holiday card. Greatly enlarged and presented propped on the floor at a low angle, it summed up the hedonistic excess of celebrity-obsessed consumer culture, which LaChapelle has long chronicled and propelled. Perfectly coiffed, dressed in black, the reality-TV stars appear under harsh neon lights in a dilapidated theater lobby strewn with hundreds of tabloid magazines. Complementing this doomsday atmosphere nearby, Aristocracy: Missions of Ambition and Aristocracy: Fog of Confusion Private Delusion, both 2014, depicted airplanes engulfed in smoke. LaChapelle also imagines an earthquake-ravaged Broad contemporary art museum in Seismic Shift, 2012. Iconic artworks by Jeff Koons, Takashi Murakami, and Richard Prince sit in several feet of dark water under crumbling ceilings, while woolly mammoths emerging from the La Brea Tar Pits mingle with Damien Hirst’s formaldehyde-preserved shark. Among the most compelling works on view, these were obsequious, disdainful, and funny representations of their subjects. The Kardashians appeared glamorous yet too narcissistic to understand that they are being burlesqued. Similarly, the artworks perilously floating in the Broad appeared both precious and entirely ridiculous. More than his religious iconography (a seemingly desperate attempt to cleanse himself of both Hollywood and the contemporary art world), LaChapelle’s well-observed depictions of the real world in which he works are what sets him free.

Mara Hoberman