David LaChapelle, one of the most well-known (and controversial) photographers working today, recently retired from a publishing career spanning more than 20 years to focus full-time on his personal fine art. His much-anticipated new work, The Rape of Africa, a year-long labor of passion and persistence, casts a regal Naomi Campbell in the role of Venus from the Botticelli masterpiece Venus and Mars. It’s a monumental tableaux that seduces viewers with sexy bling, only to shock them with the environmental devastation and violent conflicts that pervade African mining.
Exhibited at LA’s David DeSanctis Gallery alongside a compendium of process renderings, collages, and drawings, this sensational work infuses LaChapelle’s unapologetic opulence with profound pangs of conscience. We caught up with him on the eve of the LA opening (and the morning after his Guadalajara Museum of Art survey opened to a rock star welcome) to discuss his departure from the commercial scene three years ago, and the subsequent liberation of his artistic side.
Flavorpill: What about the mythology of the Venus and Mars painting spoke to you as a foundation for a political commentary on the crisis in Africa?
David LaChapelle: Botticelli used ancient mythology, unlike Michelangelo who used Christian images. Religions have, I felt, been meant to be interpreted like myths. But it’s the human truth that holds up over time. Greed, right and wrong.
Venus and Mars is an ages-old contrast between war and love, murder and beauty, all the light and darkness in the world. When Botticelli painted this work, objects of antiquity were used as metaphors that were relevant to the day. Old Master paintings were not decorative objects. And the idea of Africa — it wasn’t just specifically about Africa. But the recession is driving up gold prices ten fold, which increases mining, which is as deadly to the environment as it is to the slaves who work in these massive gold mines. You can see them from outer space, like negative pyramids. So here you see Mars draped in gold and diamonds, in a post-coital state. And Africa being the cradle of civilization, he’s basically raping the Maternal, degrading and destroying that which gives the Earth life.
FP: So it’s more than a new take on classical art; it’s contemporary and political?
DL: Political art can be heavy-handed. I use beauty to attract people. If you want nihilistic and ugly just watch the news. As an artist you have the choice to use beauty as a tool to communicate. Since I’ve stopped working for publications, where I’d really been known for pop culture and celebrities, and gotten back to what I started out wanting to do in New York City galleries 20 years ago — when I couldn’t sell my pictures to anyone but Interview — and that’s make work that’s accessible. But now I can use what I’ve learned and apply it. I’m not selling anything anymore, except ideas.
Botticelli was in love with his model, he used the same one for Birth of Venus, the one that everyone knows. I chose Naomi Campbell because she is a great beauty of our day. There’s a tendency in the art world to see something beautiful and assume it’s superficial — but I’m not going to deny where I come from. I try to achieve balance. It’s more challenging than to make something aggressive. I want to attract, not repel.
FP: Is the work you’re making now different than what you’ve become known for in your career?
DL: If you look closely, you’ll see a hidden agenda that has been there all along. Plastic surgery, celebrity worship, accumulation — all the American obsessions. In the new work, it’s no longer hidden. I’ve learned to communicate, to not be intimidated. I feel like I’ve been in school for the last 20 years. Now it’s a rebirth, it’s liberating, and I don’t take it lightly. I walked away at the height of my career because I knew something big was coming. That’s the great thing about art — you can get better at it.
David LaChapelle: A visual timeline
David LaChapelle, Amanda Lepore: Addicted to Diamonds, 1997
David LaChapelle, Lil' Kim: Luxury Item, 1999
David LaChapelle, Death by Hamburger, 2001
David LaChapelle, I Buy a Big Car for Shopping, 2002
David LaChapelle, When the World is Through, 2005
David LaChapelle, Deluge, 2007
David LaChapelle, High Performance Elegance, 2008
David LaChapelle, Lady Gaga for Rolling Stone