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David LaChapelle: Consuming an Artist in the 21st Century

David LaChapelle: Consuming an Artist in the 21st Century

Maya Lekach – Muze Staff Writer

The 21st century has been having some problems with art. No one seems to know what it is. All except, perhaps, one man, David LaChapelle. No, he’s not the black comedian with the excellent Rick James impression, but instead what some might call the artist of the millennium. But why is it that you will find him in no art history books?

Amanda Lepore – One of LaChapelle’s muses

David got his start, as many pop artists of recent years did, in New York City. The city that provided a particular allure for young bohemians in the late 80s (think Rent and Jean-Paul Basquiat) also provided the stomping grounds that allowed LaChapelle his opportunity for discovery. By Andy Warhol no less! After taking photographs for the venerable Interview magazine for a number of years, LaChapelle became much more than just a photographer for-hire, soon working for Vogue magazine, and shortly thereafter starting his prolific music video career and eventually his foray into fine art, which is most recently displayed in his gallery show ‘Earth Laughs in Flowers’ which is being shown simultaneously in London, Milan, St. Moritz and his hometown of New York.

In his fine artwork, LaChapelle attemtps to maintain the aesthetics of his commercial work while seeking to create a conversation with the history of art itself. His works often feature Baroque religious themes that are somehow mangled to suit the tastes and the shock values of the 21st century, such as his play on DaVinci’s The Last Supper. While imitating the form and composition of the famous medieval piece, LaChapelle infuses the image with modernity, including a hippie Jesus, hip-hopper apostles, and his signature neon colors that seem to so effortlessly evoke the modern era.

The Earth Laughs in Flowers

Despite these thought provoking ‘high’ art pieces, LaChapelle also enjoys heavy rotation on MTV and on your newsstand that has caused some critics to renounce him as a commercial hack as opposed to a ‘true’ fine artist. Due to his deep involvement with the fashion and celebrity worlds, many art critics consider him merely a carrier of the messages of the larger media. His works, they claim, are not art pieces, but simply advertisements for a fashionable lifestyle, in which art plays a part, but only as another commodity to be sold in today’s heavily commercial media landscape.

Lady Gaga's Celebrity Illusion, by David LaChapelle

LaChapelle’s distanciation from the fine art world comes from this pandering to a new style of art, a style most recently termed Mass Culture Art. With the world’s recent globalization and shared cultural values, increasing leisure, and more affordable technology, art has moved away from the realm of billionaires with an extra million or so to spare and towards a common consumer culture.

LaChapelle’s artistry lies in his ability, and his successes, in the commercial, mass consumed, world. Contrary to critics’ beliefs, the 21st century might be one of the first times in the course of art history that fine art and commercialism could be so married, as they are in the art of LaChapelle. In this era of increased leisure and consumption, as well as ubiquitous art collection via the internet (ie tumblr posts), art need no longer be for the high class of people who previously supported fine art. Art is no longer condemned to simply hang on a museum wall, but rather to be observed for art’s sake in youtube videos, on LaChapelle’s website, or in tumblr’s endless scroll. These days, the average art consumer is no longer a 65-year-old billionaire wondering what will look good in his collection for his Hamptons home and what will make him the envy of the industry. Rather the art consumer has changed from old fogeys with too many extra funds to college students and the young-and-hips, like you and me. We print photographs from the internet to put on our walls. We read Juxtapoz magazine. We watch Jennifer Lopez videos. We create our own world through the art we consume.

This is what makes LaChapelle an artist so critical to the 21st century, his ability to craft his world in the mind of the viewers, to create a discrete universe, and a discrete product, that is distinctly LaChapelle. He makes his production visible, most obviously through his use of color and the ever-apparentness of the body in its often erotic forms. He makes his work, and his name, a product to be consumed by the ever-growing leisure class. While a LaChapelle fan might not know what he actually looks like, they would hardpressed to not recognize the bright turquoise and dazzling pinks of his ever-present alternate reality. Whether his work is a series of still life flowers or a Florence + The Machine video, LaChapelle maintains his personal worldly vision that has become so recognizable to fans or your average MTV viewer.

LaChapelle's Video for Florence + The Machine's Spectrum

In today’s fine art climate, celebrity and artist are becoming conflated. What started with Andy Warhol at Studio 64 continues today. We are obsessed with the cult of celebrity, and it is this obsession that LaChapelle manipulates to create his success. Although his artistry is commercial, in both aesthetic and intention, it comes about in an era in which the commercial is no longer excluded from the artistic, at least for the average viewer like you. That LaChapelle began this commercial-artistic combo before it was cool are what make him an artist. Perhaps he is no Pablo Picasso, but through his works he has created the environment necessary for commercial art to be appreciated by the consumers, and he has helped to create a climate in which art is cool, in which it is a consumable entertainment much like a pop song or alt-Hollywood film. He is a man who has set the contemporary stage to be ready for art, to accept art, to appreciate art, to consume art. And in an era of consumption, what could be more artistic than that?

For more information and artwork, please visit LaChapelle’s official website at www.davidlachapelle.com

tags: contemporary art, art, david lachapelle, pop art, andy warhol, commercial art, fashion, high art, low art, photography, tumblr, MTV, Jennifer Lopez, erotic, consumption, 21st century, modern art