Subtlety isn't a quality one expects in the work of David LaChapelle, and it's not one you'll find in even the title of The Rape of Africa, the monumental photographic tableau that is the centerpiece of his show at David Desanctis Gallery.
A compositionally faithful adaptation of Botticelli's Venus and Mars, the work presents a bare-breasted Naomi Campbell in the role of Venus, a white male model who looks to have stumbled out of a Caravaggio painting (or at least a movie about a Caravaggio painting) as Mars, and three young black boys wielding serious artillery in the place of the fawns.
Gold spills out around the reclining Mars (as well as, hilariously, a battered replica of Damien Hirst's infamous diamond-coated skull), while tractors claw at a barren landscape — presumably a gold mine — visible beyond. All this in an electrified palette of gold, scarlet, hot pink and turquoise.
If not subtle, however, it is — like most of LaChapelle's work — extraordinarily detailed, a visually lavish and luscious experience. No inch of its four 4-by-ten 10-foot surface has gone unconsidered; no single element is random or capricious, from the fly that graces the foot of one of the children to the spot of blood on the cushion beneath Mars's arm or the broken light bulb dangling behind Venus's head.
The conceit of Botticelli's painting is that Venus, as benign (and clothed) as he has her appear, has vanquished the god of war with her lovemaking and rendered his weapons into playthings.
LaChapelle's treatment inverts this dynamic by suggesting that Venus (Africa) is the vanquished one, a spoil of war to be held by Mars (Europe) alongside the gold and some livestock — though that in itself is complicated by Campbell's deviously self-satisfied expression. She looks like the sort to conceal knives in her garter belts, and like she's just surrendered her kingdom for a healthy a cut of the profits. In either case, the implication is dire. These weapons are clearly not playthings, and their presence in the hands of children is tragically far from fantasy.
It would be easy to disparage LaChapelle, at a glance, for his celebrity-laden sensationalism. His sense of spectacle, however, like that of the Baroque painters he's mimicking, is neither cheap nor gratuitous. Indeed, what's most striking about his work, when viewed as a whole, is its absolute sincerity — a quality that becomes especially powerful in a work like this, that attempts to transcend the solipsism of fashion.
314 North Crescent Heights Blvd
Los Angeles, CA
September 12-October 31, 2009