Dreaming in color (UT San Diego)

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Dreaming in color

Ruud van Empel's rich compositions straddle the line between the real and the surreal


One of the most marked, initial reactions to Dutch photographer Ruud van Empel's "World, Moon, Venus" series is how much the works resemble Renaissance paintings. Yet there is something subtly uncanny and askew about the paradisiacal landscapes and subject matter that causes the eye to linger, seeking out the finer details.

"You see this Eden-like garden, with this lush foliage and gorgeous color, but if you look really closely, you'll see little insects or (notice that) some of the trees have thorns on them," said the Museum of Photographic Arts' executive director, Deborah Klochko. "There's this slightly sinister undertone, but it's exciting because it works on multiple levels."

Beginning Saturday, MoPA will host van Empel's first solo exhibition in the United States, "Strange Beauty," which includes more than 40 of his compositions, from 1996 to present. The exhibition runs through Feb. 3 at the museum in Balboa Park. A members-only opening reception with the artist will be held Friday night, at which the artist will speak and sign books.

As an employee of the International Museum of Photography and Film at the George Eastman House in Rochester, N.Y., Klochko gave van Empel his first stateside break, showcasing some of his work in the 2005 exhibition "Picturing Eden."

"He's someone who has worked with the fine line between reality and artificiality," she said. "I think he's really an artist for our time."

Inspired by the paintings of German Renaissance artist Lucas Cranach the Elder, the large-scale imagery in "World, Moon, Venus" appears fluid and seamless. However, each piece is a digitally assembled photomontage - from the background to the young models, whose clothing van Empel photographs separately, on a tailor's dummy.

"It's not exactly one person or one child, but it may be the eyes from one subject, the mouth from another and the hair of another, all put together to make a new whole," Klochko said.

"They have this painterly feeling about them," she added. "People often don't believe it's (created using) Photoshop. They want to know where he was photographing, but in fact, it is just a wonderful pulling together of all these images. It's pure photography."

The Amsterdam-based artist got his start in graphic arts and theater and television set design, the influence of which is evident in the theatricality of his works.

"When I first saw what a Power Mac could do, back in 1993, I was astonished," said van Empel, commenting via email. "It connected very well to a lot of ideas I had at that point."

After purchasing his own Power Mac in 1995, van Empel was hooked.

"I worked on it every day for at least six to eight hours, often much longer," he said. "When I realized what this appliance could offer, I could hardly sleep as a result of the excitement."

The earliest of three series featured in the MoPA exhibit is van Empel's "The Office," mostly composed of black-and-white photography.

As processors grew more powerful, with the capacity to store and process larger files, van Empel switched almost exclusively to color photography.

"I also explored the themes in more depth and sought topics that were close to my life and interests," he said.

Among those themes was the loss of his parents, whose essence is captured in his "Souvenir" series, which features artifacts from van Empel's childhood that his father and mother lovingly stockpiled in their homes through the years - from a 50-year-old container of baby powder to a one-eyed stuffed monkey, swatches of wallpaper and the artist's baby teeth.

The largely 1950s memorabilia, rendered in the tradition of European still life paintings, transcends the artist's own history, leading the viewer to reflect on his or her own passage through time.

"I wanted to re-create the house we lived in when I was a little boy, to show the feeling and atmosphere of the things that surrounded me when I grew up," van Empel said.

In an age where much art is rendered as mere ornamentation, conveying little beyond an ability to delight the eye, Klochko said works that have the power to provoke thought and take the viewer down alternate paths are paramount.

"It may not have the answer," she said, "but if it makes you wonder and think, then the art is doing an important job."

Pat Sherman is a San Diego writer.

by Ruud van Empel. All rights reserved.