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David LaChapelle’s current show “Land Scape” at Paul Kasmin Gallery in New York features two new series, “Gas Stations” and “Refineries.” In both, LaChapelle expresses his own environmental activism by photographing scale models made from everyday materials like cardboard, candy wrappers, egg crates, hair rollers, fly swatters, and more. Whitewall spoke to the artist, in town from Maui where he spends most of the year, the day before the show opened.
WHITEWALL: What was the starting point for your current show at Paul Kasmin Gallery, “Land Scape”?
DAVID LACHAPELLE: The images that popped in my head weren’t for a conceptual reason at first. I saw this old gas station glowing at night in the jungle when I was in Maui at the time. I thought it was beautiful and I knew I could construct [model gas stations] out of cardboard and keep its surrealness, like these glowing temples. And then as we made them, I really started understanding what it was all about.
The greatest change in the human trajectory has been the discovery of fossil fuels and the industrial revolution. What would represent that, visually, would be a gas station or a refinery. When I was a kid, we were driving through Buffalo, NY, at night and I saw this refinery for the first time. It was like Emerald City, it was beautiful. But then you learn that it causes pollution, it’s “bad.” It’s very black and white.
Ultimately, every single thing has been affected by the discovery of fossil fuels and has enabled us to live this life that we have. We have taken it too far without restraint and we live in a very decadent time globally. So all these things came to mind, and I’ve been obsessing over them for two and a half years, thinking a lot about what they mean and what they represent.
Will other people pick up on that? I don’t know but I think my goal was to make images that were engaging, talking about something we are all conscious of right now. We are going to have to pay the bill for all of this cheap stuff and cheap energy and the misuse of it.
WW: What made you want to work on this small scale? Had you done this before?
DLC: I had done models a few times before, but I also liked the visual play. It’s not the palette that I want people to engage with, but the illusion, where your eye sees one thing but upon closer inspection discover it’s something else. Like, “Oh wait, those are hair rollers,” “That’s a cell phone and these are fly swatters,” and “That’s a curling iron.” I want to keep people in front of the work long enough to have it connect with them…believing in the strength of the image without someone having to explain it or to read something to understand what it is.
WW: How involved were you creating the models?
DLC: Very involved. All of the gas stations were shot outside in Maui. And then we came to LA and hired some other people that were from Hollywood movies [to make the oil refinery models]. I wanted them to leave a mark and their fingerprints to keep the crafted feel so when you get close you see little defects and things and just give it a human quality. My biggest challenge with building these models is not making them architectural [but] made out of the stuff we use in our daily lives, the things we discard.
WW: Why photograph most of the refinery and gas station models in real settings, like the desert or the LA skyline?
DLC: They are real backgrounds, most of them. They breathe better.
WW: The affects of our consumption of fossil fuels is something I think everyone is conscious of, but do you think your own passion in that regard has grown since moving to Hawaii?
DLC: I’ve always been conscious of these things and interested. Being out in Maui and having a farm out there, it’s very easy to forget about the cares of the world, because everything seems so perfect. But I think just having more time to think is healthy and important. You can get very distracted living a super high-paced life as opposed to a pace that goes very slow. The distractions are less so you do have time to think about things, for sure.
“Land Scape” is on view through March 1, 2014.