Text by Maren Kirchhoff / Kai BrücknerPublications / Press >> Text by Maren Kirchhoff / Kai Brückner
Ruud van Empel was born in 1958 in Breda and studied from 1976 to 1981 at the Academy of Fine Arts Sint Joost, Breda. During the following years, he worked as a graphic designer before he started to realize his own art projects in 1986. Between 1989 and 1995, he was involved in television and film productions as art director. In 1993, he was awarded the Charlotte Köhler Prize and in 2001, he received the H.N. Werkman Award for his autonomous photographic works he has created since 1993. “Picturing Eden“ that will take place in January 2006 at the George Eastman House, Rochester, N.Y. is the first exhibition where Ruud van Empel’s work is shown in the United States. Ruud van Empel lives and works in Amsterdam.
For generating his photomontages, the Dutch artist Ruud van Empel uses the most various technical picture sources: until 2004, he worked with photographs, scans or pictures cut out from the print media whereas today, he solely uses photographs as collage elements assembling, on the computer screen, trees, flowers, leaves, animals and persons into artificial landscapes.
Van Empel developed this working method already in 1996 when he created his first series “The Offices“ – a clear reference to his early involvement as set designer in television productions. The collage-like composition of each single “Office“ reminds one of that of a television studio: in front of a room that only seems to be three-dimensional, personages such as the newscaster are each placed passively behind a work table or console. At this stage already, different picture sources such as scanned objects, photographs and newspaper pictures formed the basic material for developing his stage setting-reminding arrangements at the screen. Here, the artist rather focuses on a well-organized, harmonious composition of the picture as a whole, where the people’s fate and character is only determined through interaction with the motifs and objects surrounding them, and not on a lifelike representation following accepted standards of proportion and perspective.
Such a computer-assisted production process, most likely to be compared to “sampling techniques” in music-making is a new phenomenon in the history of art and has no direct references to any historical forms of collage making. On the contrary – this production process itself turned into a model for the work of some contemporary artists, e.g. Loretta Lux or Erwin Olaf.
Van Empel’s computer-manipulated landscapes however find their origins in the paintings of what is called the “Naïve Realism”. By playing with stylistic means such as shifting of proportions, lighting and detail drawing, he aims at compiling well-balanced compositions. Just like the paintings of the naïve painters of this stream his picture worlds mainly appear full of peace, harmony and beauty.
In his most recent series “World“, van Empel chooses nature as backdrop, thus continuing his series “Study in Green” realized in 2003. Even if in both work groups, the thick forests are composed of different single pieces they seem to have naturally grown – both a harmonious and magic scenery which in turn awakes associations to the paintings of the “Naïve Realists” and in particular to Henri Rousseau’s late virgin forest pictures.
The structure of van Empel’s pictures is based on the concept of ‘Great Realism’ proclaimed by Wassily Kandinsky. Arranged behind acrylic glass, his Cibachrome prints produce an effect of an unequalled three-dimensional quality. Things look extremely solid and thus, give the impression of being very present. In doing so, the artist imparts great genuineness to the objects presented in his pictures. The juxtaposition of a hyper-realistic representation of motifs and objects and the obvious collage structure of the pictures emphasizing the character of a synthetic composition creates a force field between reality and illusion similar to the mysterious atmosphere of a fairy tale.
This effect becomes particularly clear in the single-theme forest motifs of the “Study in Green” series. Without a human being present, the atmosphere of the empty and open stretches of thick forest is particularly mysterious and spooky, arousing infinite curiosity to see what is concealed behind the trees.
Van Empel follows a traditional approach in photography when he presents his works in various series. The consecutive presentation of several pictures seems to make up a tale and increases the effect of attraction and power his artworks have on the viewer. Moreover, in his series “Study in Green“ or “World“, pictures with or without figurative motifs alternate so that the viewer’s attention oscillates between the backdrop made from enticing-looking forests on the one side and his vis-à-vis that seems to gaze the viewer himself.
Depending on the figures represented in the pictures of van Empel - adults (“Offices“), women (“Naarden Studies“), babies (“Babies“) or kids (”Study in Green“, “Neighborhood“ and “World“) – one associates the most various topics and subjects which will become concretized to a certain degree by contemplating the details of the décor. Europe’s hypocritical, harmony-addicted post-war society (white socks and dresses), gene technology (babies), petty-bourgeois narrowness (“Neighborhood“) or a two-class world society and globalization (black children wearing sport clothes) are the themes that constitute the breaches in the paradise-like pictures of his “primeval natures” and provide the connection to reality.
Choosing kids – a motif which reappears in all of van Empel’s series – as leitmotif in order to deal with the topics mentioned above rather seems to be a bit strange. Nevertheless, some examples may certainly be found in history of art and photography. Just think of Velasquez’ “Las Meninas“ or Diane Arbus’ “Child with a toy hand grenade in Central Park“.
Graveness and burden of the adults’ real life – set into contrast to the subject of a child as synonym for security, innocence and a naïve view of the world – appear particularly stressed and illustrated. As they want to invite him to grapple with the presented topic, the children in van Empel’s photographs gaze at the viewer with great seriousness. Amidst a water landscape covered with water lilies, reed, leaves and branches one recognizes the head of a black child seeming straightly to return the viewer’s look with big, shy eyes. But no matter how much the child’s gaze will attract the viewer’s attention it becomes absorbed in the blaze of colors and quasi-natural complex shape of his entourage. As in the picture “World # 5“, kids are often placed into profuse and opulent jungle forests where they remain serious and silent but not scared at all, making the innocence of a child appear both sweet and disturbing. Thus, contemplation of the pictures creates tension, which stimulates and inspires us to reflect the addressed thematic complexes actively and with great sensitivity. Unlike the work of the artist Loretta Lux often compared to his works van Empel’s topical portfolio is of a wider variety. This becomes especially apparent in the complexity in technique and content of his works. The artist Ruud van Empel lives, alert-eyed, in the present day.
Maren Kirchhoff / Kai Brückner