Given world renowned photographer David LaChapelle’s immersion in the realm of celebrity and pop culture — including his recent starring role in creating the Kardashian family’s most over-the-top Christmas card yet — it is hard not to be partly taken aback by the subject matter in his new exhibition: dramatic shots of oil refineries and gas stations that offer extensive discourse on the precarious state of the planet and the human race.
“LAND SCAPE,” LaChapelle’s latest show at Chelsea’s Paul Kasmin Gallery, tackles these issues through large-scale chromomeric prints of handcrafted and hauntingly lit manmade sets.
“I just had this image in my head of a gas station in the jungle like a little glowing temple,” LaChapelle told ARTINFO several days before the exhibition’s January 17 opening, during an interview at the gallery. “I didn’t know what it meant at the time. I just saw the image and I thought it was beautiful. I told my friend and we started building models out of simple materials like cardboard.”
It wasn’t until later in the process of building and photographing the gas station models, all of which were shot in Maui, where LaChapelle resides, that he understood what the stations meant for him. They “are quite profound in the sense that they are a symbol of the industrial revolution and the use of fossil fuels, which really completely changed the human trajectory. This is what brought up civilization but it also brought it down,” he said.
“We are at a precipice,” he added. “I can’t imagine 20 years from now the world moving as rapidly as it is, the atmosphere changing each year and CO2 levels increasing.” Noting that every culture that has survived has lived sustainably, LaChapelle seems somewhat encouraged by society’s current focus on that concept. But he is cautiously optimistic. “The question now is will we get it in time to make a dent.”
Following construction of the gas stations, LaChapelle and his team created and photographed scaled models of eerily lit refineries crafted out of recycled materials including soup cans, egg cartons, tea canisters, and hair curlers, as well as “other by-products of our petroleum-based disposability-obsessed culture,” writes Los Angeles-based critic and curator Shana Nys Dambrot in the introductory essay to the show catalogue. The stations and refineries are “staged as architectural avatars of a planet coping with the stresses of peak-oil — even as the buildings’ dazzling spectacle and retro-future aesthetic distracts from the dangers of their function.”
LaChapelle described how he sees the refineries as objects of both attraction and repulsion, a sentiment skillfully portrayed in the images. “When you’re a child and you see these refineries at night, you think, ‘Oh how beautiful, like the Emerald City, or Oz.’ And then you see them as a grown up and think, ‘Oh that’s bad, it causes pollution.’” He continued, “Well it’s neither good or bad, it’s what you do with it.”
The “refinery” portion of the show was created and shot at sites throughout the deserts and coastline of California. The entire series took about three years to create.
LaChapelle seems pleasantly surprised at how well received his later bodies of work have been, since they mark a departure from the decadent, neon-hued celebrity portraits and elaborately staged magazine shoots that catapulted him to worldwide fame. When he decamped to Maui in the mid-2000s, where he lives on a farm he bought and runs, he thought he wouldn’t be invited back to show at galleries. “I thought I’d burnt that bridge,” he said.
The artist first started showing occasionally in New York back in the 1980s. Later, when he became famous for his magazine work, he maintained a presence in several top galleries. But he felt he lacked credibility in the art world. “I thought I was a novelty act, a celebrity draw, that they weren’t taking me seriously and vice versa.” Nonetheless, he was encouraged by the freedom he was given to explore new subject matter that wasn’t dictated by the fashion world. Indeed, some of his top-selling works at auction have been images from his mid-2000s “Deluge” series, including “Deluge: Museum” (2007), an unsettling image of a flooded museum with Old Masters hanging a few feet above the water line.
“There is a responsibility there,” he said. “I want to put pictures on the wall that meant something, and had something to say. I can spend much more time thinking about them now. It’s a different chapter in my life.”