From te publication
The work of Ruud van Empel
By DEBORAH KLOCHKO
“There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion”. – Francis Bacon
We are mere spectators to the lush and layered world created by Ruud van Empel. To engage with his work, it is important to understand not only van Empel’s techniques, but the sources of inspiration for his art. Although he makes reference to the German painter Otto Dix and to various sixteenth-century paintings, his work is equally about early photographic traditions and twentieth century cinema. The Photoshopped worlds he creates are less about the digital techniques he has mastered than about the evocative, implied narratives he creates.
Collaging – the combining of several images to form a new whole – has a long history within photography. Much of its early implementation was based on the technical limitations of the wet collodion process, which required two separate exposures to create a landscape that included clouds in the sky. ( Because of its sensitivity to the blue portion of the spectrum, a normal exposure for the ground created a sky so dense that it would print as white, so one exposure was made for the sky and an-other for the clouds. ) Early art photographers like Oscar Rejlander and Henry Peach Robinson used the collage method, not to overcome technical limitations, but to assert artistic control, and thus to declare their picture as artworks. Both made large images from multiple negatives. Rejlander’s The Two Ways of Life included over thirty. Robinson’s Fading Away , crafted with five negatives, depicted a young girl dying of consumption with her family at her bedside.
People were outraged by the image because they felt it was too intimate a moment to be displayed. In fact, none of it was real. The individuals were photographed separately, then assembled together. Because photography appears truthful, people believed the reality of the image, to the point of being incensed. Photocollage was also a popular Victorian pastime. Photographic images, often in combination with watercolor drawings, decorated many albums. In her essay on this nineteenth-century pastime, Elizabeth Siegel writes, “The new medium of photocollage was wonderfully suited for compositions of the surreal and fantastic; indeed, the chance to combine photographic portraits with painted settings inspired dreamlike and often-bizarre results.”
With Photoshop, van Empel seamlessly collages his source images, creating his own surreal and fantastic worlds. He says about his intent, “…you have to take time to look with my work. There has to be one image that’s very monumental that grabs you at first sight and then you will see the sinister details.” Van Empel constructs worlds that cannot exist in reality, but are so sharp-ly focused that we are immediately drawn into them.
Painting has been important in the evolution of van Empel’s art. His working method is similar to that of a painter. Images are layered and colors are mixed, but instead of using a brush and paint, van Empel uses a camera and a computer. Taking inspiration from Otto Dix, van Empel finds that, “He is a very special painter. There’s no one you can compare him to because he can show the beauty in ugly things. He can portray a person with all his ugly, twisted emotions in his face and still it’s beautiful.” This statement also reflects van Empel’s intentions in his own work – what we gather at first glance is not what the image is really about.
Van Empel’s Venus series was inspired by a painting more than four centuries old – Venus, by the German painter Lucas Cranach – but taken in a very different direction by the use of a black subject in an Edenesque environment.
It is also important to examine the cinematic influence on van Empel’s art. Having worked in film, graphic design, and television, van Empel was drawn to the work of directors such as David Lynch, Jacques Tati, Michael Powell, and Emeric Pressburger. Tati’s 1967 Playtime a stunning visual rendition of a modern, soulless Paris, tells the story of a man out of place in his own city and time. Nearly thirty years later, it was Tati’s depiction of modern, cubical working spaces, and of man as a cog in that great machine, that would inspire van Empel’s Office series. Though highly regarded today, Powell’s Peeping Tom was met with hostile criticism when released in 1960. The movie tells the story of a young, successful man who is also a voyeur and a murderer who captures the final moments of his victims on film. Color is a key element in Powell’s film.
As one reviewer writes, “Peeping Tom has a surprisingly nasty look ( the use of Eastmancolor is most appropriate ). The bright reds, blues, greens, and yellows suggest comfort and elegance that are simply missing.
The visuals are beautiful but at the same time disturbing, even sickening.” The use of color to control the viewer’s emotional response is something van Empel mastered early on. The influence of these film directors on van Empel is not limited to the visual elements of their movies, but, as John Ellis, professor of media studies, put it, “… the question of artifice has often been identified as a key aspect of Powell and Pressburger’s films.” Powell himself claimed that, “… many actors and actresses don’t understand the difference between the audience watching you act and the camera watching you think.”
In van Empel’s work, that distinction has been elevated to primary status, with van Empel functioning as an “actor” who very much understands the difference. Van Empel has refined the theatricality of Photoshop into a subtle means of crafting his vision. In his images, layers of information and multiple details are condensed into unfolding stories. Much as a director and editor construct a film, he synthesizes visual elements and narrative into a single image. If he had come out of a purely photographic background, this work would be very different.
Van Empel’s brilliance lies in his ability to combine the kinds of ideas imbedded in painting ( historical references, the power of the gaze, the use of color ) and cinema ( multiple-image structure and the strength of narrative ) into that of photography, and do it on a large scale. To engage with his work, one must ask: Is it science or is it art? Is it real or is it imaginary? Is it innocence or is it corruption? These are just a few of the questions we face when entering into the world of Ruud van Empel. The strange beauty that is inherent in his work imbues innocence with a hint of danger, forcing one to question assumptions and to go beyond what is comfortable.
That is the power of great art – to challenge what we believe to be true, and to take us on a journey of discovery.
Director Museum of Photographic Arts