Bones’ Beat: David LaChapelle Wages Holy War at Tony Shafrazi


This week, Bones, intrepid art-world raconteur, bounces over to Tony Shafrazi Gallery in Chelsea, not certain what to expect. A violent reaction ensues . . .

Tony Shafrazi is a decorated veteran of New York’s commercial art scene, a dealer with a significant role in the robust legacy of the ’80s downtown scene, the world of hustle and grime, of the evergreen angelics of Basquiat and Haring. Younger gallery-goers, indeed many of today’s working artists, are too young to know actual details. His is a name carved in the upper eaves of a pantheon, and one usually forgets that he has been dealing and exhibiting, uninterrupted, for 30 years. Shafrazi now works largely with the clinical and perfunctory world of the secondary market—the world of moving pieces privately from collector to collector via many hands and many phone calls—and his 26th Street space’s program reflects this leaning. Shows are up for months, a lifetime by Chelsea standards; work is at the dustier, more prestigious end of things; factors like the artist’s signature and a work’s size play a disproportionate role in what’s shown and shared, what’s valued.

I had not thought about Shafrazi as more than an historical icon since, well, ever, but his presence was dramatically renewed for me and many around me last spring with an exhibition that set the artistic and critical community ablaze. Who’s Afraid of Jasper Johns? saw artist Urs Fischer and gallerist Gavin Brown meticulously photograph Four Friends, a typical Shafrazi Gallery endeavor featuring throwback outings from Basquiat, Haring, Kenny Scharf, and Donald Baechler. Fischer and Brown took the Friends down and rehung it in exactly the same space as flat, flawless, photographic wallpaper, complete with all the works as well as every smudge and crevice of the gallery topography. Then they hung another show on top, often directly on top, of the two-dimensional version. And a lively, delightful conversation took place in the gallery. Good questions were asked, questions about value, humor, self-importance, history, identity, and more, and the voice had a light lilt. The show wasn’t showing off, and it appeared uncynical to the core.

LaChapelle montage via the Pill

Thus two months later I’m back at Tony Shafrazi Gallery, a place that feels like a destination now, not a polite obligation. The show is David LaChapelle’s. LaChapelle is a photographer and filmmaker and also, er, an artist I suppose, whose meat and potatoes is American celebrity. He favors props, fantasy, and eye-popping saturation. He likes punchily outlining figures and making them prop forward in the landscape in a way that oddly recalls the Orientalist in Manet. He doesn’t fear controversy or taboo (he shot the musician Kanye West in a crown of thorns for the cover of Rolling Stone magazine two years ago, and that image has been recast here, 102 inches tall). He sees America’s drawn lines between trashy and tasteful culture as permeable borders, and has been applauded for this. He has been working for a good decade now, and is rewarded with lots of jobs. He was a busboy at Studio 54. He is an all-time posterboy for the Adobe Photoshop program. His show at Shafrazi this month is called Auguries of Innocence in incongruously literate allusion to an apocalyptic William Blake poem. And I can report that it is absolutely terrible.

The works are concerned, broadly speaking, with the idea of waste, both the inherent cyclical wastefulness of American accelerated consumer culture, and the waste of life as we battle abroad bloodily for reasons no one can remember or perhaps ever really knew. The images created to corroborate this are incredibly vulgar, sensational, and confrontational to the eye, mostly constructed as giant cardboard pop-up dioramas, the sort of displays one sees in Cineplex lobbies or at the end of aisles in big stores when something’s on special. Children’s Bacchanal includes, variously, naked children, a display of the Torah, Koran, and Bible, Damien Hirst’s diamond encrusted skull, various sickly sweet cakes, two stretch limousines, a giraffe, a Paris Hilton lookalike whose dress billows to reveal hairless pudenda, two gold pigs shagging and, in the middle of course, the fiery pit of hell. With Holy War, the centerpiece at 354 inches wide, words fail me.

David LaChapelle has aspirations of high satire: the work asks, nakedly, to be considered opinionated and knowing without the geriatric snags of stuffiness or uncool. The bright, confrontational stylishness and the cornucopic abundance of pointed content and messages in this show suggests LaChapelle needs, at least, the image of simultaneous sass and intelligence to stare back at him from the mirror to make his day great. And fair play to him. I’ve no right to trash one particular case of an artist’s ego, messily confessed, when neediness and narcissism are an integral part of the artist’s social classification. It goes with the territory. If you’re in Chelsea or an equivalent temporary autonomous zone you’re gonna have to deal with artists working through their problems in front of you, and sometimes the art is annoying and you feel an idiot for giving this person your time, and sometimes the art has magic in it and starts to ask tender and sophisticated questions about your own issues. It’s always a gamble.

What makes LaChapelle’s outing at Shafrazi particularly offensive, though, is that he’s staking a claim on satire without offering an alternative behind the tart, blunt, and rather simplistic parables. He has a good line in exposing total vulgarity and total wastefulness because he’s not simply engaged in total vulgarity and total wastefulness—he’s also very passionate about it. So this is not critique, not at all. It’s celebration, and I have no idea why we’re celebrating. Thanks for nothing, Tony Shafrazi. -Bones

Auguries of Innocence is up until October 24th at Tony Shafrazi Gallery, 544 West 26th Street.

Next week, Bones enters the fortress of the Fashion Institute of Technology, a place with an exhibition program that no one really talks about. What on earth is it like in there and will it cheer him up?

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