Taste is fickle. We all think we have good taste, but of course that’s impossible. Some of us are chic, and others display ceramic frogs around their home.
I’m more attuned to the dichotomy than most. Taos, where I live, is famed as an art outpost at the edge of nowhere. We used to have Agnes Martin, Ken Price, and Dennis Hopper, but they’re all dead now. Bummer.
Instead, in the 80’s and 90’s, the Taos art scene began to cater directly to the hordes of moneyed Texan and Oklahoman tourists that drove into town with regularity. Big trucks, big checkbooks, questionable taste. The result was a glut of “art galleries” that each tried to outdo the others with uninspired, gaudy Southwestern art.
If you like bad paintings of cowboys, indians, flowers, teepees, mountains, horses and hollyhocks, this is your kind of place. If, like me, you try to make and look at intellectually challenging work, then you’re probably better served elsewhere. I hate to be harsh, but it is what it is.
Sometimes, though, bad taste can be accepted within the realm of high art. We’re all familiar with kitsch, but I suppose it’s difficult to define. You know it when you see it, like porn. Some things are so cheesy or tacky that you like them in spite of yourself. (Like Billy the Badmouth Bass crooning “Don’t Worry Be Happy” every time you touch the button.)
I’ve got all this in mind, as I just put down a copy of David LaChapelle’s big new monograph, “Thus Spoke LaChapelle,” published in conjunction with an exhibition in Prague. (Yes, I know I ought not pick on the Eastern Europeans again. But I saw more silly mustaches and tacky vinyl siding while living in Polish Greenpoint, Brooklyn than I care to remember.)
David LaChapelle is a super-famous photographer, and you’ve probably already got you mind made up about him. As my knowledge base skews towards the art world, rather and editorial, I knew him as some dude who makes crazy, opulent photos, and who also sued Rhianna. (My goodness she’s beautiful.)
But I didn’t have a microfiche catalogue of his work in my head. Not at all. So I was pleasantly surprised to see this book, filled to the brim with celebrities, hookers, models, fake boobs, fake butts, jutting penises, and tons of campy, gay-themed silliness. Let me be clear: this is a big book, so there is more bad taste than a gas-guzzling RV from Texas towing a Hummer off the back. (Yes, I see them all the time.)
I’d rather not get into too many details here, because there’s too much to discuss. The famous people are there, and boy did he make Courtney Love and Michael Jackson look bonkers. But David Bowie is hip, Uma Thurman is radiant, and he even got Daniel Day-Lewis to do something strange. (Just imagine that set, if it was in the actor’s Bill the Butcher phase. “Uh, Mr. Lewis, we’d like you to rub a pomegranate all over your face. And if you’re planning to stab anybody, please avoid the vital organs.”)
There are some terrible photos in this book, and some photos that are terrible in a good way. (In fairness, some of the celeb pictures are good without being bad at all.) It’s big enough that you’re likely to find some you love, and some that shock you with audacity. Surprisingly, near the end, we see the series of images, represented on the cover, of people photographed while submerged in water. They’re well made, powerful, interesting, and subtle. If you didn’t know who made them, you’d probably just assume they came from the mind of a talented, less crazy artist.
Bottom line: Crazy monograph, famous photographer, famous subjects
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