Stephen Meisel, "Four Days in L.A.: The Versace Pictures," July 19-Sept. 1, 2001, at White Cube 2, 48 Hoxton Square, London N1 6NL England.
"There's a glamour to it, too -- a sick glamour, but a glamour," says photographer Steven Meisel. He's discussing "Four Days in L.A.," his advertising campaign for Versace's Fall 2000 collection. A year later, these photographs were presented not as advertising but as high art, blown up to mural-size and hung on the walls of London's most avant-garde art gallery, the White Cube II, in an exhibition that garnered lots of fawning press attention, including a cover story in Art and Auction magazine.
In the high-gloss photos, nearly identical supermodels Amber Valetta and Georgina Grenville pose in palatial L.A. homes. Primped and preened within an inch of their lives, dripping in gems and gold, they are surrounded by orderly opulence from Old Master paintings to hyper-groomed poodles. In a magazine, they make a sharp contrast to the overused youth-obsessed vision that characterizes women's fashon.
Needless to say, these photos were commissioned to sell clothes and are, whatever their artistry, commercial advertisements. Yet the prints are selling quickly. With 15 photos in all, each in an edition of nine, priced at £12,000-£15,000 each, we're looking at a total value of around £2 million. Clearly not a bad business.
White Cube's owner, Jay Jopling, has been a key figure in the marketing of yBa artists such as Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst, who've since become celebrities in the same kind of fashion magazines that have christened Meisel as the genius of his profession. Jopling's decision to show "Four Days in L.A." as an art exhibition was fairly simple. A preferred Versace customer; he received the catalogue and was struck by its artistry and contacted Meisel's agent.
The celebrity-studded opening back in June, which drew appearances by Kate Hudson, Liz Hurley, Donatella Versace and Stella McCartney, has fueled the glamour surrounding the exhibition. Certain dealers and curators fumed over the blatant commercialism of these works, but most people seemed too carried away by the heady atmosphere to mind.
Can fashion photography play as fine art? In fact, since Man Ray went to work for Schiaparelli in the 1930s, the fashion world has drawn on the avant-garde for its creativity, while artists have embraced fashionistas for their high-society access and chic. Little has changed since.
Meisel made his Versace photos over four days in two L.A. mansions. The models pose in interiors that demonstrate success of the most recognisable sort -- wealth. In the catalogue essay, this untouchable sumptuousness is compared to Italian Mannerist portraits by Bronzino and Pontormo.
At the same time, Meisel has given his subjects a shellacked and frightening emptiness. Their well-adorned conformity with their lavish surroundings makes them just another hieratic sign among the tapestries and objets d'art. In the hermetic fashion world, Meisel's photos are being cited for re-introducing the grown-up woman into a realm dominated by images of youth. But it is a mannered adulthood all the same, the return of The Valley of the Dolls and The Stepford Wives.
Some precedent exists for the art-fashion crossover in this particular concoction. Before his death, Versace was a patron of contemporary artists like Julian Schnabel, and his book, Men without Ties, highlights their collections while placing their photos directly beside works by Delacroix, Perugino and David.
Meisel already has a track record that any controversy-seeking art photographer would envy. He was credited for the notorious heroin chic look, and photographed Madonna's Sex book of 1992, as well as the Opium perfume ad showing the model Sophie Dahl nude that caused such a stir in 1999.
In terms of zeitgeist, Meisel clearly knows which buttons to push. "Four Days in L.A." reflects an approach that has become commonplace in fashion as well as art these days -- subverting ideals with a nihilistic attitude, which by extension makes the items they advertise seem "cool." Versace would not risk mocking its well-heeled customers were it not au courant to do so.
At present, Meisel's success proves that artistic irony is simply good advertising. And that in today's art world, commerce can be important as an esthetic component.