Galerie Rabouan-Moussion Paris review

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By Anna Samson, Paris

When the Dutch artist Ruud van Empel showed a photographic print of a white girl in a white dress in a gallery in the Netherlands, he was accused of racism. Some of his critics attacked him for portraying the Aryan ideal of blonde
hair and blue eyes. His stunned reaction was to make them eat their words with a new body of work. His latest digitally crafted images present a tropical Eden in which serene black children become the symbols of wide-eyed innocence.

"When I made the white girl in the white dress, I got all these stupid remarks about, 'He's a Nazi'," van Empel recalls. "So I thought, 'Let's do a black girl in a white dress and see how people react to that.' I thought that could be interesting because it's not something that we're used to seeing in Western art." Immaculately dressed boys and girls stand next to lotus leaves, looking in wonder at exotic flowers and tiny animals. Others are bathing in the water, peacefully at one with nature. A young black Venus, nude but for a pearl necklace, gazes sideways, surrounded by an abundance of lush greenery.

Purity, sweetness, innocence. In his series 'Moon, World, Venus', van Empel attributes the qualities associated with childhood to gorgeous black children - something that, as he says, is extremely unusual in Western art.
"When people think of childhood innocence they automatically think of a white girl with pale skin, which is strange because all children - whether they're black or white - are the same. And in Christianity, the colour black is often used to express something negative. The devil is black; death is black. I wanted to challenge these conventional perceptions and show that a black child can also represent beauty."

Indeed, when the image of the black girl in the white dress was exhibited in a group show in New York last year, the response was so positive that it was made into a poster. "The black community was very pleased to see black children depicted in this way," van Empel enthuses. The frontal portraits and tropical scenery belie the complexity involved. Van Empel, 48, belongs to the first generation of artists to embrace digital art and the range of possibilities offered by Apple Mac and Adobe Photoshop.

Van Empel began his career as a graphic designer and also worked as a set designer/art director in theatre, cinema and television before making collages with scissors and glue from his own photographs. After receiving a grant from the Dutch government he started experimenting with digital photography. Just as he enjoyed designing sets, van Empel is driven towards creating a unique, painterly language centred on beauty. Each photographic print is composed from some 100 images that have been collaged digitally.

Initially van Empel photographs four or five models from an agency in his studio. Then he takes detailed, close-up shots of leaves, flowers, plants and insects in the Botanical Gardens. Once he has amassed hundreds of images on his database, he considers which ones could be combined to make a composition. "I choose a certain position of a model that I have photographed and see if I can mix it interestingly with other photos," he explains. "I use one model's forehead, then another one's nose, then I add on light to the nose and the pupils in the eyes. I'm just mixing, mixing, mixing. Even the upper and lower lips are separate montages." The same process applies to making the environment. It's labour-intensive: completing one image takes two to three months.

Asked what motivates him to produce digitally collaged figures in digitally collaged surroundings, he replies, "I don't want to portray existing people because then it would be just a portrait of somebody. I want to make a monumental, timeless image. I don't want to tell any stories. I realised that with tropical nature I can make it look a lot more like a painting because the leaves have such strange shapes and the flowers are so weird."
His images are like tableaux vivants; we could even call then photographic paintings. They are certainly not photographs, even though photography is used. As van Empel puts it, "I use photography but that doesn't make me a photographer. It's quite new, this development. Should it be considered photography or contemporary art?" Straddling the two, his meticulous captivating images present a captivating world.

'Ruud van Empel, Photographic works' is exhibited at Museum Het Valkhof in Nijmegen in the Netherland, from 24 March-3 June 2007. www.museumhetvalkhof.nl.

Ruud van Empel is represented in Paris by Galerie Rabouan Moussion, 121 rue Vieille du Temple, 75003 Paris. www.rabouan-moussion.com.

Galerie Rabouan-Moussion Paris review


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