David LaChapelle has always deconstructed images and reconstructed them with the neon brights of pop culture and an airbrush. After reveling in the success of a 20-year photography career that made Warhol proud and Madonna pissed, he suddenly crashed. In his new show From Darkness to Light at Lever House (through September 2) he's deconstructing his process and exposing the frayed edges beneath the gloss. Problem is, caterpillars enter cocoons and become butterflies, not the other way around; after creating a unique aesthetic that pop culture sucked up like Kool-Aid (so unique that he is suing Rihanna for emulating it in a recent music video), his new look struggles to emerge as original.
"Raft of Illusion: Raging Towards Truth" doesn't even try, instead it plunges into art history with the basic equation "fashion photography + art historical reference = art." The connotations from his allusions don't carry across or retain their meaning. What does come across is LaChapelle's earlier aesthetic slowly fracturing as it nears its breaking point.
"Chain of Life," in contrast, flourishes. Looped paper chains hang from the modernist ceiling, interrupting the flow of suits busying through the lobby. Each link is a pink nude photograph forming a drooping umbilical cords of reddish decoration. Somewhere between the biology of photographs and cellular sculptural forms it subtly succeeds.
"Adam and Eve Swimming Under a Microscope" follows the molecular structure of "Chain." Small translucent cutout naked photographs of men coalesce on the floor-to-ceiling windows. LaChapelle's typically vivid colors glow, but their resemblance to stained glass makes them so familiar that the effect is lost. Religious tones and Damian Hirst's butterfly works are too easily alluded to, as are the viral implications in similar Gilbert and George pieces. Both "Adam" and "Chain" seem to be dissecting photography and work best when they don't worry about stitching together parts to form a whole.
LaChapelle is undoubtedly a forceful image-maker. Perversity allowed his commercial work to teeter on the edge, but perversity in the art world is a different animal. If he can use his deeper investigation of the construct of images with the irony and knowing analysis that catalyzed earlier work he may find that his style translates. But he'll have to give up the pop and stop putting things back together.
(Images courtesy the artist, Lever House Art Collection)