GIUSEPPE ARCIMBOLDO (1526-93) may not exactly be a household
name, but he is the witty and bizarre Italian painter best known
for painting portrait heads from a mix of fruit and veg., flowers,
and all manner of things. Nothing is ever quite as it seems, and
there is a degree of mischief as well as brilliance in all his
allegorical work (although he undertook more conventional
commissions that have fallen into oblivion).
Surprisingly, he became the imperial court painter to the
Habsburgs, serving Ferdinand I in Vienna and his son Rudolf II in
Prague. Their cousin Philip II in Spain might have felt relieved
that he had called Titian to work for him in Spain had he seen the
Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II depicted as the Roman God of Spring
From a distance, the portrait is at once recognisable, albeit
allegorical. Close up, it comes as a shock to find that it has been
contrived with a gourd for the emperor's chest and courgettes
supporting his Adam's apple. Pea pods serve as eyebrows and two
ripe cherries form his lips falling over a couple of lychees that
make a goatee and so on.
Seemingly random objects take on a life of their own as
Arcimboldo avoids caricature; animal tails that might be used as
dusters wittily serve a dusty old librarian as a beard. Some
scholars worried that they werebeing mocked, but the artist was
passing judgement on the attitudes of others. Like Hamlet, he knew
a hawk from a handsaw. It would be for others to judge whether he
was mad or not.
David LaChapelle (b. 1963) is definitely not mad, but his most
recent series of eight large C-print photographs is equally
challenging and witty, even though it fills the first and second
floor of this gallery so exuberantly with wall after wall of
saturated colour. It is his fourth international show in the
thriving West End of London.
From a distance, we are presented with sharply lit (often night
shots) oil refineries, presented as if they are latter-day temples
in a culture of energy production and ecological waste. But all is
not quite as it seems.
"Anaheim", "Emerald City", "Greenfields", "Luna Park", "Castle
Rock" - their very names are deceptive. As in Britain, so in the
United States, incongruous and often innocent-seeming names conceal
industrial plants and brownfield housing developments much as
Victorian terraced houses were given evocative names such as
"Sunnyview" and "El Dorado".
The city of Anaheim, as part of the Los Angeles metropolitan
area, is mightily proud of its first grid-connected photovoltaic
power-generation system. At the Seattle-Tacoma International
Airport, Emerald City "connects the evergreen ethic of the Pacific
Northwest with the sense of possibility and wonder associated with
travel", where green LED fixtures will illuminate towers of vine to
convey the concept of the "green city" by night. Green crystalline
photovoltaic panels on the south side of the tower will provide
LaChapelle comments provocatively on all this self-justifying
rhetoric in our petroleum-dependent age, forcing us to ask
questions about what constitutes real energy and where the source
of power is by making us look closer into hisdeeply crafted
photographs thatturn out not to be what they first suggest.
Each of these large pictures, whether of refinery towers
belching smoke into the night, giant cooling towers, or poisonous
reflections cast into the industrial waste waters of a nuclear
power plant, is a carefully realised studio production.
This nightmare world of corporate greed and energy debates is
contrived from the equally nightmarish world of our own "throwaway"
society: drinking straws, Starbucks Styrofoam cups, recycled beer
cans, hair curlers, corrugated paper, and ordinary Duracell
batteries are among the hundreds of everyday objects of our
wasteful society used in building each photographic
In Greenfields (182 × 189cm), the complex machinery in
the foreground turns out to comprise plastic measuring jugs, stuck
together mouth to mouth and linked to VTech mobile phones. Luna
Park contains upturned jelly moulds and egg boxes as well as tubs
of Similac infant formula. Riverside is built on the caffeine waste
of Rockstar energy drinks and the like.
Alongside these large-scale indictments of our energy-crazed
world, LaChapelle sets three almost idyllic scenes of disused
petrol stations photographed by night with the expressive power of
Edward Hopper's 1942 evocative painting of a cheap diner at night.
But, whereas in Nighthawks, the artist had peopled the scene of
despair, the photographs suggest abandonment and emptiness. On
closer inspection, we come to see that the photographer has pulled
off yet another brilliant coup de folie.
On the showing of these works. I do not imagine for a moment
that he has invested his own millions in utility stocks, whether of
renewable energies or not, or that he would be welcome at any AGM,
but his critical voice and his quirky photography have a
deceptively powerful vision.
"David LaChapelle: Land Scape" is at Robilant +Voena, 38
Dover Street, London W1, until 18 June. Phone 020 7409 1540.