KIDS, David Winton Bell Gallery

Publications / Press >> Brown University (2007)


David Winton Bell Gallery
at Brown University List Art Center
64 College Street
KIDS: Photographs of children
Julie Blackmon, Jill Greenberg, and Ruud van Empel,
November 3 through December 21.
5:30 pm Friday, November 2: Lecture with artists and Bell Gallery director and exhibition curator Jo-Ann Conklin. Reception to follow.

Julie Blackmon, Jill Greenberg, and Ruud van Empel photograph children, creating fictional images that elicit reactions ranging from amusement to astonishment to shock. Each of these artists uses digital techniques to separate photography from its associations with reality. Blackmon collages elements and intensifies colors. Greenberg draws on the images, emphasizing facial expressions. Van Empel uses the most elaborate techniques, building his images element by element and often compiling more than 100 individual elements in a single image.

Ruud van Empel has created two series of images of children surrounded by nature: white children in northern deciduous forests and black children in dense tropical forests. The images are both beautiful and odd. The forests are intricately described; every flower and leaf is visible, as are animals and insects. The children face the camera and stand stock-still. Van Empel identifies innocence as his subject and bases some of his images on family snapshots taken by his father. He calls the series of images of black children World, thereby emphasizing the universality of the subject and identifying these children as belonging to all of us. Van Empel has created images that are both nostalgic and utopian, and readings, therefore, fluctuate between an embrace of innocence and a critique of racial relationships.

The exhibition is accompanied by a fully-illustrated catalogue with essays by Jo-Ann Conklin.

The Artists

Julie Blackmon was born in 1966 in Springfield, MO. She attended Missouri State University and continues to live and work in Springfield. Her work has been included in exhibitions throughout the US, including at the Photographic Center Northwest, Seattle, WA; Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago, IL; and the Photographic Resource Center, Boston, MA. Her work is held in the collections of the Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago, IL; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX; University of Arkansas, Little Rock, AK; Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas City, MO; and Portland Art Museum, Portland, OR. Information at

Jill Greenberg was born in 1967 in Montreal, Canada, and grew up in suburban Detroit. She graduated in 1989 from the Rhode Island School of Design with a BFA in Photography. She currently lives and works in Los Angeles. In addition to her commercial work for MGM, Sony, HBO, Target, Microsoft, and others, her photographs from Monkey Portraits and End Times have been exhibited at the National Academy of Sciences, Washington, D.C.; Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art, Toronto; Artspace, New Haven, CT; Chelsea Art Museum, NYC; and Boston University Art Gallery, Boston, MA. Information at

Ruud van Empel was born in 1958 in Breda, The Netherlands, and currently lives and works in Amsterdam. He attended the Sint Joost Academy of Fine Arts in Breda and worked as a graphic designer, set designer, and art director for television before turning to photography in 1995. His work has been shown throughout Europe since 1998 and in the US since 2005 and was included in Picturing Eden, a traveling exhibition organized by George Eastman House, and in exhibitions at the Chelsea Art Museum, New York City; Museum of Photographic Arts, San Diego, CA; Des Moines Art Center, Des Moines, IA;; and in The Netherlands at Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, Scheringa Museum voor Realisme, and the Groninger Museum. His work is held in numerous private and public collections including those of the Groninger Museum; Norton Museum of Art, West Palm Beach, FL; and Tel Aviv Museum of Art, Israel.


The kids aren't all right
Unsettling photographs at the Bell Gallery
November 13, 2007 7:24:26 PM

AN EMOTIONAL JOLT: Greenberg's "Shock."
Children inhabit strange synthetic worlds in the exhibition "KIDS" at Brown University's Bell Gallery. Gallery director Jo-Ann Conklin brings together 33 images by three photographers - Julie Blackmon of Springfield, Missouri; Jill Greenberg of Los Angeles; and Ruud van Empel of Amsterdam - who photograph children and digitally manipulate their images.

Van Empel creates breathtaking eerie magical scenes of children in lush forests, jungles and ponds. In "World #1," a black girl in a pristine white dress stands holding a white flower under the giant leaves of a lush green jungle. In "Untitled #1," a white girl with blonde braided pony tails stands in a lacy white dress with her arms stiffly at her side amidst a birch forest. In "World #13," a topless black boy with big solemn eyes stands waist-deep in a pond. His hands are folded in front of him in what feels like a religious pose. (Van Empel is inspired by First Communion photos.) The boy is framed by big leaves and pitcher plants. At top, a lily pad floats above his head like a halo.

These photos, from 2003 to '06, are assembled by combining as many as 100 images into a single scene. They recall the lavishly staged and retouched campy dream photos of French duo Pierre et Gilles; the chilly digitally-manipulated photos of children by German photographer Loretta Lux, and Chicago painter Kerry James Marshall's scenes of black residents (their skin painted simply black) of housing projects called gardens.

Van Empel's scenes are filled with ravishingly vivid colors, and dreamlike shifts of scale and space. Kids appear in their Sunday best or stripped down to shorts. He often photographs their heads, arms, legs, and outfits separately, giving many of them a doll-like appearance. He has a terrific eye for details that make the scenes pop, like a violet flower in a tangle of green foliage. Then Van Empel, a white Dutch guy, lightens or darkens skin tones to emphasize the kids' race. He pictures white kids in deciduous forests and black kids in jungles. On the one hand, the scenes are like mini-Edens, pure and holy' on the other, they call forth stereotypes of Aryan princesses and primitive jungle tribes. It's dangerous, electric territory.

Blackmon stages and digitally stitches together scenes, by turns humorous and ominous, of white kids doing the darnedest things in a neat middle-class world. These photos from 2005 to '07 feel like Gregory Crewdson images starring the preschool set. A girl in a white dress hides behind a gold curtain in what appears to be her bedroom. Her ruby red slippers lay on the floor before her, pink gum stretching from the sole of one to the floorboards. In "High Chair," a diapered kid stands up precariously in a high chair while no one seems to be watching. In the next room, we glimpse the broom of someone sweeping. In "Cupcake," a boy with blue frosting all over his lips and a cupcake in his hands gives a possessive stare. A baby crawls away. A woman sits with her feet up, waiting for her toenails to dry, watching TV. A boy climbs a column. Who knows what could happen?

Greenberg, a commercial photographer, began her 2005 series of photos of weeping children when a boy model began crying during a studio shoot. She kept photographing. They all have a similar format: little topless kids from the navel or shoulders up posed before blue-gray backdrops under bright studio lights. The kids tear up, gasp, drool, howl from wide-open mouths. She digitally alters the photos to emphasize tears and grimace lines. Greenberg gives them titles such as "Four More Years," "Shock," "Faith?," and "Apocalypse Now" that reflect her anger and despair about life during the Bush Administration and the evangelical right. It's hard to resist the heartbreaking pull of these crying children. Conklin reports their outbursts were sparked by "the Hollywood trick of taking candy away from a baby." You want to comfort them - even if you know that kids naturally cry for all sorts of reasons, many small, and now and again for no reason at all. But after a couple of these pictures you get the point, and the emotional jolt wears off.

"KIDS" | The David Winton Bell Gallery, 64 College St, Providence | Through December 21




That alone makes "KIDS," a new photography exhibit at Brown University's David Winton Bell Gallery, worth a visit.

The show's three contributors - Dutchman Ruud van Empel and Americans Jill Greenberg and Julie Blackmon - all focus on various aspects of childhood, offering sometimes funny, sometimes unsettling riffs on everything from traditional baby pictures (Greenberg) to modern domestic life (Blackmon) to age-old themes of innocence and experience (Van Empel). They also share a taste for computer-based programs and processes that often leave you guessing where reality ends and virtual-reality (or at least Photoshop) begins.

Van Empel, for example, takes pictures of angelic-looking children, both black and white, outlined against elaborate faux-natural backgrounds. The backgrounds for the black children are lush and tropical, while those for the white children are densely forested in a fairy tale-ish, Brothers Grimm sort of way.

Yet perhaps the most striking things about Van Empel's pictures are the expressions on the children's faces. Some, like those of the two young black boys who peer out at us in a work called World #14, are wary and even a little menacing. (The same looks from a pair of adults would definitely mean trouble.) Others, like the look the face of the pretty young black girl in World #1, are more innocent, though still largely inscrutable.

In both cases, we're reminded that children see and experience the world differently from adults. For them, the world that we adults have learned to take for granted is still a strange, magical and sometimes threatening place - a point Van Empel drives home more than once in these spooky-surrealistic works.

Greenberg, meanwhile, takes one of the world's most innocuous art forms - the professional baby portrait - and turns it into a playful-yet-potent form of political satire. Using all the tricks of a professional portrait photographer - dramatic backlighting, extreme close-ups, air-brushed highlights - she takes pictures of photogenic tykes whose oversized heads fill each of her poster-sized prints. Yet rather than a parade of happy-faced toddlers, Greenberg's kids cry, scream, gasp in horror and generally carry on as only pre-schoolers can.

Why all the frowning (and worse) faces? According to a gallery note, Greenberg began taking the portraits shortly after the 2004 presidential election. Accompanied by titles such as Torture, Misinformation and Armageddon, they express her own horror and dismay at the prospect of four more years of George W. Bush.

While Greenberg and Van Empel focus mainly on individual portraits, Blackmon uses a similar array of digital tricks and techniques to explore contemporary family life. The resulting pictures combine the casual, slice-of-life realism of family snapshots with a surrealistic streak worthy of Salvador Dali.

In Powerade, a young boy tosses a ball into his backyard. It's common, everyday scene, except that the way Blackmon has photographed it - with the boy frozen in midair, the ball hovering above him like a tiny red planetoid and every detail seemingly brighter and clearer than it could ever be in real life - gives the picture the dizzying look of a dream or hallucination. Other works, including the playful Birds at Home and the darker Before the Storm, achieve similar results with larger casts of children and adults.

If all this makes "KIDS" sound like a show for adults only, think again. True, the child-centered world conjured up by Blackmon, Greenberg and Van Empel has its dark spots as well as its moments of humor and fantasy. Then again, since when was childhood all sweetness and light?

"KIDS" continues through Dec. 21 at the David Winton Bell Gallery, List Art Center, 64 College St., Providence. Hours: Mon.-Fri. 11-4 and Sat.-Sun. 1-4. Phone: (401) 863-2932.

by Ruud van Empel. All rights reserved.