Who’s the bigger freak, Michael Jackson or David LaChapelle? The late Jackson was clearly the king, but all he had to work with was his own wacky self. LaChapelle, by contrast, commands an Olympian cast of characters, often in outlandishly erotic costume (or no costume at all), disporting on blazing sets that marry Bollywood and the Bible with a bit of the Parthenon thrown in for good measure.
With his just-about-to-end exhibition at Paul Kasmin Gallery in Chelsea, LaChapelle now counts among his models Michael Jackson (or a reasonable facsimile thereof). It hardly matters if the person who posed for LaChapelle was genuine or phony, since Jackson himself was our most famous chameleon and media creation, the very exemplar of Simulated Man.
The topic is a LaChapelle specialty, as his work has long demonstrated, whether it’s an image of Hilary Clinton posing as her wax museum double or all those portraits of Amanda Lepore, the diminutive transsexual with artificially puffed lips and enormous breasts that seem to be made of immovable plastic covered with skin. In one photo, she’s posed on all fours on a metal table inside a closet full of clothes, about to receive an injection in her rectum from a nurse brandishing an enormous syringe.
For his comparatively staid triptych of images of Jackson, LaChapelle has appropriated Catholic iconography. American Jesus: The Beatification: I’ll never let you part for you’re always in my heart -- the titles of the three MJ works all include lyrics from his songs -- is an eight-foot tall image of MJ standing in a bed of artificial roses, against a backdrop of blue sea and sky. He is flanked by a blond Madonna (played by supermodel Hanna Soukupova), a white dove is perched on his outstretched hand and a bloody sacred heart is embroidered on his shirt.
In Archangel Michael, a subdued but formidable MJ as Saint George is seen on a stormy coast, treading on a prostrate red devil. A shining sword lies discarded on the rocks below him as MJ gazes beatifically to the side. White feathered wings are strapped to his back, and holy tears drip from his eyes.
In American Jesus, a homoerotic pieta set in old growth forest features a bearded young Jesus in raggedy jeans holding MJ’s outstretched corpse in his lap. One of Jackson’s arms dangles impotently, pointing at a discarded sequined glove. Light streams into the scene from rear distance, creating halos around their bodies.
Strangely, LaChapelle’s kitsch is not without a conscience, overheated though it may be, as both MJ and the Catholic Church have become indelibly linked to the worldwide obsession with child molestation. This Bataillean dialogue between low sins and exalted spiritual striving is found in several other LaChapelle photographs, notably Thy Kingdom Come (2009), which suggests that the church is as fixated on earthly wealth as it is on heavenly devotion.
In the action-packed picture, a dwarfish pontiff whose legs are hidden beneath his gown sits on a tottering golden throne. Twisting his face into a perverse grimace, he gazes up at heaven while stretching out his bloody hands over the treasures heaped at his feet. Among the gold and fine art are the pale corpses of four beautiful nude young men, their hands and feet tied, suggest the long association of the clergy with illicit sexuality and ritual execution.
Colonial abuses are the subject of Rape of Africa (2009). A contemporary version of Botticelli’s Venus and Mars, the photo stars Naomi Campbell as Venus sporting an impressive pile of neck rings that might be worn by a South African Ndebele tribeswoman. She sits regally on a couch, opposite a blond white man who represents the sleeping Mars.
Nude except for a turquoise satin cloth artfully draped across his crotch, Mars has a tiny bloody scratch on one cheek. Three racially indeterminate cherubs attend the couple, one holding an enormous machine gun that stretches across the image.
Riches are scattered in the foreground, but the background is a pink cinderblock wall covered with red and yellow packages of “Classic Sun Bleach” and partially blasted open by an explosion. Outside is a desolate excavation with a bulldozer diagonally bisecting the sky, like the shadow of an enormous invisible phallus emerging from the sleeping god’s crotch.
In a serendipitous meeting of art and reality, Campbell has lately been forced to testify in the war-crimes trial of former Liberian President Charles Taylor, who supposedly wooed the supermodel with uncut diamonds from a trove of illegally mined gems he accepted as payment for weapons supplied to brutal insurgents from Sierra Leone, whose campaign of terror during 1996-2002 killed 120,000 people and included child enslavement and mutilation.
A group of small studies hanging on another wall (the first time LaChapelle has exhibited his preparatory works) are improvisational and somewhat expressionistic -- diametrically opposed to the meticulously planned, artifice laden large-scale images. Several feature collaged magazine photos of actual African miners, whose agonized sweat-covered faces blast open the exhibition’s atmosphere of allegorical kitsch with a dose of uncomfortable reality.
LaChapelle may be hoping that the more he amps up his images’ airbrushed camp perfection, the more they might summon up an unseen reflection of suffering and toil. According to the New York Post, the photos are priced at around $90,000 apiece.
Dave LaChapelle, "American Jesus," July 13-Sept. 18, 2010, at Paul Kasmin Gallery, 293 Tenth Ave., New York, NY 10001
ELISABETH KLEY is a New York artist and writer.