From te publication
RUUD VAN EMPEL FOTOGRAFIE
Ruud van Empel; Avatare des Heiligen und des Schönen
triving for ideal beauty is not only a driv- ing force behind the history of Western art. It finds its continuation in the contempo- rary media industry as well as in cosmetic surgery. Successful American television series like “Sex in the City” or “Desperate Housewives” turn the fight against the transience of physical beauty and the asso- ciated deduction of points in the struggle for success and recognition into an existen- tial battle placed in the setting of more or less banal relationship problems, intrigues, and everyday troubles. Like in the classic Commedia dell’arte, these internationally televised series have certain stereotypical personalities who encounter particular fateful occurrences and are incapable of changing or even influencing these turns of events. The rhythmic repetition of tragic storylines as well as the seeming bound- lessness in these continuously updated series is thwarted by the motif of tran- sience that inevitably engraves itself upon the actresses’ faces, but which is perma- nently held in check by the immutability of the surroundings and extraneous circum- stances. Each of these series is imbued with fragments of reality, self experiences, and true stories. But they are assembled to form a reality which, in its artificiality, is far removed from the contingencies of every- day life. The narrow-minded suburban gos- sip and the affected urban glamour skir- mish about at prime time in cozy petty bourgeoisie living rooms where to the viewer has withdrawn, confident, in light of the predictability of things, in his autho- rial viewer status. The protagonists of these series are at the same time fatefully fet- tered to each other by means of a con- necting mystery whose resolution is only partial, but nevertheless represents the motor of an endlessly perpetuating drama- turgy. It draws its fascination from the skilled pervasion of reality-oriented plot lines with those derived from mythic or epic motifs revealing a quasi metaphysical layer of the actual with an inwoven endowment of meaning.
The reality of film was originally also Ruud van Empel’s field of activity. He first worked as a set designer responsible for designing the ideal background for a certain screen- play or studio situation in order to promote a suitable illusion to the viewer or to pres- ent the thematic context through atmos- pheric moods or motivic set pieces. Aspects of experienced reality are connected in this way, allowing them to be back-referenced in the medial view in order to simultane- ously specify an overriding layer of analysis, narration, or observation. Ruud van Empel’s method in his artistic work comprises the pictorial realization of sketch-like outlined concepts and ideas through existing, in part self-made photographic material – com- parable to a painted composition or sam- pling in music. The fragments from news- papers, the Internet, as well as his own photographs must, however, be joined together so conformably and brought into an overriding, seemingly perfect system so the that the illusion of an illustration of the world can be produced.
The image of the human being is Ruud van Empel’s theme. In a quasi painterly utiliza- tion of photography he depicts persons in very different contexts: as a professional role model, the incarnation of an ideal of beauty, or the personification of innocence and chastity. The portrayed persons merge completely in the projection between the poles of ideality and reality. Photography reduces the figure to a stereotype that masks out characteristics as regards tem- perament and mood to the greatest possi- ble extent. Ruud van Empel constructs a stage-like space for this portrayal which promotes the appropriate typecast by means of its atmosphere, attributes, as well as the specific employment of lighting. It is noticeable, however, that the persons exposed to the glances of the viewer seem to be aware of the fact that they are objects of observation and scrutiny, as if they were in a showcase or a picture-frame stage. Their glances are categorically turned towards an imaginary observer in order to deliver themselves up in a self-con- fident or even defiant manner in order to demand the viewer’s sustained occupation with the pictorial misé-en-scene and his own associations.
The pictures of “The Office” series depict persons posing behind desks or work spaces whose professional identity is un- ambiguously definable by means of hyper- trophically accumulated attributes and deco- rative elements that are in part even exag- gerated to the point of a caricature. The uniform lighting of the stage-like arranged situation increases the scene’s unreal impression. The arrangement of the objects on the real wall or scattered throughout the entire pictorial surface in an all-over structure does not correspond to an actual constellation, but rather a television studio or prop room in which all manners of objects are stored and made available for use. The pictorial objects are spread out in the sense of a surface-oriented composi- tion. The human being as the real focus of this arrangement is characterized in his interaction with the surrounding objects. He seems to dominate the things as their mutual point of reference in order to simul- taneously recede as an individual with respect to them, to subsume himself in this seemingly decorative accumulation of things and thus to be paradoxically domi- nated in turn by them. In the sense of the professional identification, the proportions and emphasizes shift in a manner compa- rable to the medieval practice of portraying the size of objects or characters according to their importance. Neither the lighting nor the detail drawing are derived from a realistic situation, but are employed instead to accentuate the pictorial message. In later versions of this group of works, the decorative pictorial impact is further rein- forced by the employment of color photo- graphs. The pictures’ level of abstraction is increased at the same time. The figures are fixed in rigid poses as components of a pic- torial montage solidified into an ornament. Because the pictorial reality is detached from realistic storyline references and modes of action to the greatest possible extent, the portrait is disconnected from the contingency of time and space.
The history of portraiture begins with the artist striving to make the criteria of like- ness the theme of his representation. This not only comprises outer appearances, but also, since the late fifteenth century, depict- ing the sitter’s personality. Role playing in ecclesiastical, mythological, and historical costumes is juxtaposed with identifiable phy- siognomies and a psychological moment. Parallely, norms of beauty and physical ideals as opposed to the imperfection of nature developed during the late Quattrocento when Italian artists discovered the study of anatomy and proportions. Beauty was hence- forth considered wise and virtuous, ugli- ness as inane and vulgar. Renaissance por- traiture is thus an aesthetic construction and a moral postulate. These categories, formulated to judge the human physiogno- my, lived on until the twentieth century and onward to the present day. It thus became possible for artists of the New Objectivity, Expressionism, and even the contemporary film industry to make use of these measures of value in the sense of a political or moral commentary, and polarize the viewer accordingly.
Ruud van Empel ties on to these diverse concepts of portraiture without clearly positioning himself in terms of the coordi- nates of likeness and idealization. In works comprising “The Office” group he quotes the professional portraits brought into being by guilds and professional associa- tions of the Dutch and Flemish tradition only to translate them into a new semantic system. But it is not a restorative undertak- ing here. The artist is more concerned with
the complexly entangled conveyance of divergent concepts of reality. His starting points are pictures distilled from everyday reality in the first place and subsumed by the mediatized world. He selectively frees them from the given context of meaning in order to open them up to new associations and interpretations. A reversal process after a sort is consummated here. It is not reality that is placed against the backdrop of the images, but fragments of copies and icono- graphical models interact instead to such an extent that they now reference a new form of reality. This can no longer be pri- marily described as an illustration, but is fashioned rather as an intersection of par- ticles of reality, pictorial patterns, imagina- tion and the visual memory of the artist and the viewer alike. It is therefore not solely concerned with identifying the per- son in terms of his behavioral role. More- over, a multifaceted and in and of itself contradictory aesthetic concept becomes visible which mirrors diverse interlocked medial planes of reference. In recourse to typologies of Renaissance portraiture, the artist links the figural representation in an interior with a conglomerate of objects assigned to the portrayed perform in the attributive sense of a characterization and express a social hierarchical position. If at all, psychological features are relevant as a function of this professional affiliation. A concept of portraiture is articulated here that runs counter to the example of an intrinsic visualization of the sitter’s person- ality. Figure and surroundings merge into a mutual semantic structure whose texture also becomes visible in the rhythmic or
ornamental structuring of the pictorial sys- tem. The individual is expunged of his dis- tinctiveness, integrated in a functional con- text, and subject to a wheelwork of overar- ching mechanisms. The social role model becomes the pretense of a self-satisfied aesthetic system that by implication again references the social and psychological level insofar as our realm of experience is in fact influenced to a high degree by mech- anisms of deindividualization, functional- ization and aesthetic norming. Ultimately, it is not the intention to take on any of the two options of idealization and likeness in an unbroken form, but to question the foundations of this antagonism. This is not concerned with the characterization of a personality as an individual, but rather to develop a pars pro toto figure in a hermet- ically sealed aesthetic system that makes a social as well as a psychological structure visible. This is determined for the most part by heterogeneous, in intrinsically contrary perceptions and medial references. The artist constructs a moment of reality that – seemingly conceived homogeneously – does not directly derive from a one-dimensional experience of the everyday. It forms a de- tachment between the image layer and the viewer layer that transcends the thematic reference and demands from the viewer a reflection on the complex status of image and reality. Ruud van Empel creates a meta- reality that inherently nullifies the differ- ence between fact and fiction. He aims at a process of condensation and exaggera- tion in which aspects of the actual and the virtual, but also facets of the conscious and the unconscious emerge in equal measure.
In the “Study for 4 Women” group of works, Ruud van Empel translates this methodology to the subject of female por- traiture, whereby it also basically concerns imaginary figures here. Depictions of mod- els from mail order catalogs are assembled as fragments into seemingly irreal appear- ances which in turn personify an ideal image of femininity and beauty. An atmos- phere is evoked by means of the surround- ing that conveys a sensation of desire to the viewer. The genesis of the women’s portraits is in fact comparable to that of the so-called “avatars” insofar as they can be generated by the user in computer games or in the virtual spaces of the Internet as the product of his own projec- tions and desires. The glances of these female figures can be interpreted as seduc- tive, self-confident, lasciviously or even demanding. The image is ostentatiously imbued with the viewer’s voyeuristic con- duct in order to in this way make his sen- sations themselves into the object of the depiction. The relationship between the subject and the object of the observation remains ambiguous. In the eyes of the viewer, the woman enclosed in a claustro- phobically narrow interior space is at the mercy of a defenseless and hopeless situa- tion in order, however, to impressionably and abruptly make the former aware of his own stance regarding a wished for positive or negative response. It is about self control between the poles of melancholy and dis- comfort, desire and threat. Only the rigid poses, the clothing and hairstyles from the past, preferably from the nineteen-twen- ties to the nineteen-sixties, as well as the
empirically incomprehensible illumination of the space bring the difference between the reality of the image and the viewer to mind. In this case, too, the depiction appropriates a form of timelessness. The nothing less than auratic lighting design of the space endows the portraits with an almost psychic quality. The women coming into view on the narrow, in their decorative scheme seemingly almost two-dimensional stage are carried away, despite their physi- cal presence, into a spiritual distance that is bridged by their unchastely presented physical charms. The fascination of these female portraits is thus articulated in the perpetual ambivalence of proximity and elusiveness, of revelation and rapture in order to therein immerse the viewer in an emotional roller coaster of physical and psychological emotions. He is productively integrated into the genesis of the picture via his feelings and sensory input.
By assembling in part tiny pieces of photo- graphs in such a way that they approach an ideal of beauty, Ruud van Empel assumes that an aesthetic concept is inherent in the actual. This is to be comprehended analyti- cally and reshaped. In some ways the pho- tographer functions like a cosmetic sur- geon whose aim is to attain perfection of the natural human body by means of per- manent reconstruction. In the process, however, the environment of figures is taken into consideration so that the women snuggle up chameleon-like in their respective interiors and blend into them as if it these spaces were custom made for them or as if the women generated them- selves from out of these surroundings.
Figure and space reference each other dynamically, and oscillate in an interplay of proximity and intangibility. The female fig- ures therein seem to hold the labile balance between the poles of medieval portraits of saints and the erotic photographs of a posh burlesque stripper like Dita Von Teese.
In the “Study in Green” group of works, the stage-like interior is replaced by a seemingly fairy-tale like wooded landscape which, however, is capable of inducing feelings of claustrophobia due to its dense- ness and impenetrability. The proportions within this thicket have decidedly been shifted. The viewer encounters oversized low-growing plants in comparison with which the animals hidden in it as well as the viewer himself appear in miniature. The unnatural coloration and dramatically ac- centuated chiaroscuro contrasts convey the premonition of a latent danger, a lurking mystery capable of interrupting calm and serenity of the scenario at any moment. In another group of works, “Untitled,” Ruud van Empel combines the figural theme with the motif of the romantically tuned wood- ed landscape. In doing so, the artist holds fast on his methodology of assembling found or self-made pictorial fragments in such a way that the figure and its surrounding express a certain feeling and atmosphere. Once again the figures of the girls appear as if – like a dream face – they came from another period in time due to their clothing and hairstyles, just as if they were the prod- uct of one’s own childhood reminiscences or as a reflection of a film narrative stored in our collective memory. In these natural
surroundings, the girls’ smart and proper ap-pearances seem rather inappropriate and unnatural, yet fall at the same time strangely into line with this equally artificial and seemingly irreal image of nature that can hardly reference an actual, geographi- cally identifiable topography.
In his most current group of works, “World,” “Moon,” and “Venus,” Ruud van Empel retains the motivic linking of figure and landscape: the frontally growing up figure of a child or an adolescent appears against or amidst the backdrop of an exuberantly growing landscape. Seemingly fantastic, colorful plants create a tropical atmosphere that in its artificiality and in-tactness is only possible in a greenhouse or under labora- tory conditions. This forest thicket is also constructed from fragments of reality, whereby Ruud van Empel awakens the impression of an artificial mirror world by means of the exaggerated colors, blazing brightness, and distorted proportions. The figures looking at the viewer are often extremely dark-skinned and seem, like their surroundings, to come from a fabled imag- inary world. The moon landscapes height- en the impression of a dream experience by linking the nearly black bodies to their sur- roundings as far as possible; only the eyes and pieces of clothing emerge more clear- ly as reflecting light zones. As much as the glance of the young people attracts the viewer’s attention, they nevertheless simul- taneously sink into the colorfulness and quasi-natural diversity of surroundings. The almost provocatively challenging attitude of these children is also disturbing as this self-consciousness seems at odds with the
impression of naiveté and simplicity that would seem to manifest itself in their deli- cate bodies. The childish innocence seems sweet and disconcerting, authentic and false at the same time. Ruud van Empel shows us at the same time an idealized and transfigured image of unsuspecting beauty in a hermetically sealed environment. He herein formulates a desirous image of Arcadia innocence and paradisiacal intact- ness that, however, clashes with the some- what defiant gesture of the pictures’ pro- tagonists. These discrepancies are further heightened by the secret inwoven into the surroundings, whereby both, the image of chastity as well as the simultaneous pre- monition of an uncertain threat, are not in fact the actual subject matters of the depiction, but derive instead from the viewer’s projections. The viewer as a coun- terpart is again clearly referenced here. As was previously the case when faced with the rather tantalizing women, the recipient is also assigned a more or less uncertain, by no means precisely defined role. The girls and boys pose in an upright stance; if at all, they are immersed in incidental, meaning- less activities and hence removed from any meaningful contextual framework. The fig- ures are free of any personal features or extraordinary character traits by means of the almost perfect, extremely smoothed- over appearance. The limply hanging arms underscore their somewhat passive behav- ior. The personification of innocence and simplicity reveals itself in its instability and vulnerability in order to also present to viewer his responsibility in dealing with these ideals, their relativity and the associ
ated clichés. In the face of this demonstra- tive inactivity and unworldliness, the view- er almost unavoidably envisions the cre- ative leeway left to him in which he, as a participant, largely has the figure and its surrounding at his disposal, while he simul- taneously has to painfully discover that he must remain excluded from this symbol of perfection and beauty. The moral concept linked to the pictorial genre of portraiture is transformed here oriented towards the recipient’s conscious and self-reflective commentary. Ruud van Empel has succeed- ed here in giving images of ideal beauty and Arcadian perfection that were emptied of all meaning in the mass media and the film industry a new relevance and com- plexity which physical and psychologically captivate the viewer by means of a combi- national and montage process. Ruud van Empel’s pictures brand themselves unfor- gettably on the memory; they confront us with our own desires and fears; they are extremely intimate and yet also retain a universally human and quasi mythical sig- nificance. The subjects of his portraits – produced from the connection between cinematic and painterly elements of design – are thus in no way inferior to the above- mentioned protagonists of the successful television series.
Christoph Kivelitz, Art historian