Los Angeles

David LaChapelle's Seismic Shift

David LachapelleSeismic Shift.

David LaChapelle is one of the most famous editorial and fine art photographers in the world. His glossy, supersaturated surrealism and transgressive humor leap off the pages of the most expensive magazines and the walls of the most prestigious galleries and museums on the planet. From his days at the original Andy Warhol-helmed Interview Magazine right through to increasingly epic masterpieces taking on eternal Biblical themes and current geopolitical upheaval, his trademark has always been constant forward motion.

David LaChapelle studio shot of print.

In person he is one of the funniest people you could ever hope to meet. Like, laugh until you cry funny; hurt yourself funny. His knowledge of contemporary art is encyclopedic. His enthusiasm for cultural bright spots is genuine and unbounded. His work ethic is downright intimidating and his capacity for running multiple simultaneous mental programs is akin to a supercomputer—a fabulous, kaleidoscopic supercomputer. The sum of all these parts is his new masterpiece, the monumental image Seismic Shift, La Brea Tar Pits—ten feet across and three years in the making. Always a fan of elaborate set pieces and large-scale dioramas, DLC's Hollywood studio is more like a production company's backlot than a glamorous white box. But even by the studio's already ambitious standards, the making of Seismic Shift takes the cake.

Across the ten-foot expanse of Seismic Shift, an ample museum room based on the Broad/BCAM building at LACMA has been totaled in an earthquake. It's cinematic in scope and effect, but—and this is why it took three years—there's no CGI or equivalent. They built this twisted pile of mud-soaked A-list havoc by hand, to scale, and just took its picture. It looks real because it is real. They're still cleaning up the studio.

The thrust and tumble of mud and tar and its tide of broken glass and tangled wreckage of Renzo Piano's iconic red steel beams has burst through the left wall of the room. Gurgling deep into the gallery space, there are cars riding down the mountain of slick ooze, stinky brown mud and sticky black tar. There's the pit's familiar baby woolly mammoth surfing its bulk as it slides down into the filthy standing water that has flooded the entire room. The water is disgusting, full of grey menace but reflecting the caved-in roof overhead and the light that punches through it. A bunch of crap is floating around in this muck—like PST pamphlets and Louis Vuitton purses that implicate both MOCA and the Getty in the allegorical fray. At the back, another mudslide has taken out a wall, bringing along more contorted red beams, and all the lampposts of the Chris Burden installation Urban Light.

David LaChapelle's Seismic Shift, Louis Vuitton bags.

David LaChapelle's Seismic Shift, photograph from Andreas Gursky's department store series.

Yet even with the oddly hilarious spectacle of disaster in the architecture, it's still the art on the walls and floating in the water that star in this passion play. DLC is charmingly adamant about not answering questions about the piece and its meaning (except off the record). I tried to get my dear, mercurial friend to give me something to go on, but he feels—and I think he might be right about this—that here at last is a work of art more than capable of telling its own tale. "I want your critical observations. I will NOT and DO NOT want another Q&A as long as I live! I love you, only I made a decision no questions on this piece will I answer for anyone. I CAN'T WAIT to see your take on it, you're a genius writer. Love, David." I can't lie, that particular late-night text message warmed my heart despite the shutdown. But given the painstaking circumstances of its creation, it's nigh unto impossible to believe that the choices he made for the "permanent collection" are any kind of accident.

Heavily weighted toward big-ticket Pop Art, the "group show" that was destroyed is a kind of pantheon of New York Pop of the 1980's and '90s, and contains multiple levels of cross-generational influence and derivation. A Richard Prince naughty nurse; a late Warhol camouflage painting; a photograph from Andreas Gursky's department store series; a giant Jeff Koons red balloon dog, as well as a version of his Popeye, lobster, and porn girls paintings, plus his seminal Floating Basketball sculpture. Barbara Kruger's beloved LACMA elevator is not spared; and in a snarky nod to MOCA there's also some festive Louis Vuitton wallpaper and a monumental Murakami sculpture to match. Damien Hirst's life's work takes up about half the picture with a Pharmacy cabinet, a version of his human anatomy sculpture like the one from the Tate, a few dot paintings, a sheep corpse, and most emotionally satisfying of all, Hirst's infamous shark tank—broken to bits and leaking formaldehyde into the standing water. The shark seems poised to return to the wild.

David LaChapelle's Seismic Shift, Damien Hirst works.

David LaChapelle's Seismic Shift, Koon's balloon animals.

David LaChapelle's Seismic Shift, Barbara Kruger.

Like all the best satire, this achievement of both sculpture and photography is based on penetrating insight into predicate conditions. This is why, in one rare comment about the imagery in the photograph that did it make it onto the record, DLC cautions against reading too much Hirst-hating into his over-representation in the "collection." It's just that there's something about Damien Hirst that feels like the culmination of the Pop game, and the endgame of the overblown art market. There are clear lineages in the group—Prince and Koons with their sexy tarted up ladies that mock classical nudes; the fishtanks of Koons' floating balls and Hirst's shark; the rampant, environmentally destructive fetishes for the cheap goods on display in Gursky's store and the fossil fuel and petroleum-based products that are killing the planet. Environmentalism is a cause close to DLC's heart; so while the point of the image is an arching cultural allegory, he must also take personal satisfaction in helping wreak nature's revenge. They say life is short and art is long—but in this picture, civilization is depicted as a fragile thing, ignoring nature at its own peril. Is that evocation of climate change also a meta-metaphor for the current state of the art market? An overblown orgy of consumer desire in no way tethered to the spiritual value of fine art, and one that threatens to take down the whole ecosystem when it bursts? It sure reads like a warning. Even though DLC might not be talking, this picture is worth way more than 1000 words.

Seismic Shift, La Brea Tar Pits goes on view at NYC's Paul Kasmin Gallery this November.

David LaChapelle's Seismic Shift, Murakami sculpture.

David LaChapelle's Seismic Shift, Urban Light.

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Top image: David LaChapelle's Seismic Shift.

About the Author

Shana Nys Dambrot is an art critic, curator, and author based in Los Angeles.
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