Ruud van Empel

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Ruud van Empel (born 1958) is one of the most innovative and influential contemporary photographers working today. Van Empel’s pioneering techniques have completely changed the face of digital photography. Using a vast library of digital body parts, fabrics and foliage, van Empel creates dream-like photographic utopias, where nothing is exactly as it seems. Ruud van Empel is represented in the United Kingdom by Huxley-Parlour gallery.

All works are available for purchase – please click on an image for further information.

Works

Sunday #5, 2012

Ruud van Empel

Venus #2, 2008

Ruud van Empel

Dawn #4, 2008

Ruud van Empel

Perception, 2014

Ruud van Empel

Identity #4, 2015

Ruud van Empel

Mood #1, 2015

Ruud van Empel

Mood #6, 2016

Ruud van Empel

Brothers & Sisters, #3, 2010

Ruud van Empel

Identity #3, 2014

Ruud van Empel

Mood #2, 2015

Ruud van Empel

Mood #8, 2016

Ruud van Empel

Moon #4, 2007

Ruud van Empel

Moon #7, 2008

Ruud van Empel

Sunday #4, 2012

Ruud van Empel

Sunday #2, 2012

Ruud van Empel

Voyage Pittoresque #7, 2017

Ruud van Empel

Collage #6, 2017

Ruud van Empel

Voyage Pittoresque #6, 2017

Ruud van Empel

Voyage Pittoresque #1, 2016

Ruud van Empel

Mood #7, 2016

Ruud van Empel

Mood #5, 2016

Ruud van Empel

Mood #4, 2015

Ruud van Empel

Theatre #9, 2013

Ruud van Empel

Theatre #2, 2010

Ruud van Empel

Theatre #5, 2010

Ruud van Empel

Theatre #8, 2014

Ruud van Empel

Identity #1, 2014

Ruud van Empel

Study In Green #18, 2004

Ruud van Empel

Identity #2, 2014

Ruud van Empel

Figure, 2014

Ruud van Empel

Mood #10, 2016

Ruud van Empel

Mood #9, 2016

Ruud van Empel

Identity #5, 2015

Ruud van Empel

Theatre #6, 2011

Ruud van Empel

Wonder, 2010

Ruud van Empel

Early Years

Ruud van Empel was born in Breda, The Netherlands, in 1958. After graduating in graphic design from the Academie St. Joost, van Empel worked briefly as a designer and later as a creative designer specialising in theatre décor. In 1995 van Empel made the transition from stage to staged-photography when he presented his first photographic project entitled The Office, a series of portraits showing various individuals in workplaces that van Empel had constructed. This initiated the ‘digital collage’ work for which he would later become known.

Photographic Career

Van Empel’s pioneering techniques have completely changed the face of digital photography. Using a vast library of digital body parts, fabrics and foliage, van Empel creates dream-like photographic utopias, where nothing is exactly as it seems. Each figure is a hybrid; resulting from his painstaking synthesis of hundreds of diverse fragments taken from his own photographs. Eyes, noses and lips are collaged together to create the highly-polished new human forms that inhabit his images. The process is painstaking: a single work can take up to three months to complete. The colours and textures are individually altered, and each setting digitally staged. Van Empel uses photoshop to utterly transform reality, and turn it into something at once alluring and unsettling.

His first project The Office was largely black and white due to the limitations of technology at the time, namely a computer which “crashed every five minutes,” that prevented van Empel from producing full-scale colour montages until the new millennium. “When I made them I did not actually plan to start a career in art, I was just enjoying myself making things on my new computer.”

In 2009 van Empel presented three bodies of work as part of the touring Picturing Eden exhibition curated by Deborah Klochko of George Eastman House. These were Venus, Moon and the critically acclaimed World. These three series of digitally constructed portraits of children have become van Empel’s most exhibited and recognisable works. One element which has drawn particular attention to van Empel’s portraits is the consistent appearance of black children in his work. Although it is not intended as any particular statement, van Empel has commented on the portrayal of black children in Dutch media as often “poor” or “suffering.” “I received some positive responses from black audiences, who said they liked the way my work portrays black children in a respectful and beautiful way rather than as a victim.” A recurring theme in van Empel’s work is the innocence of children. The artist meticulously chooses clothing that echoes the formal Sunday dress that he and his siblings would wear to church as a child. This is intended as a comment on the mixed feelings of both oppression and pride, which such clothes instilled. So integral is the accuracy of such clothing to his work that van Empel often digitally constructs garments from memory by photographing specific materials and patterns and then ‘stitching’ them together.

“Ruud van Empel’s hard drives are filled like the old mahogany cabinets of a collector of natural history: hundred of ears here, hundreds of shoes there. Ties, glasses, belts, coarse cloth, good cloth, loud cloth, tasteful cloth… Then the natural stuff itself: leaves, skies, tree trunks. Huge folders of bits. None of them mean a thing until he does his stuff with them. These collections are his material, as Picasso’s might have been bits of Greek myth or fragments of bullfighting. Vik Muniz makes pictures from chocolate or felt or salvaged trash which are eventually frozen as photographs. So van Empel builds new imagery from fractions of imagery… Out of this stuff, this mulch of visual detritus, van Empel makes pictures which have distinct qualities. They are almost always still. They are centrally and flatly composed. And they allow themselves to play with scale in a particular way.” – Francis Hodgson, Professor in the Culture of Photography, University of Brighton.

Exhibitions and Awards

Van Empel’s work has been exhibited extensively and his work is held in the collections of several major galleries and museums throughout the world, including MoPA Museum of Photographic Arts, San Diego, the Rijks Museum, Amsterdam and the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, Israel. He has also been the recipient of numerous awards including the Municipality of Breda Oeuvre Prize in 2013 and the Artist of the Year Award from American Friends of Museum, New York in 2017.

Artist Interview: Ruud van Empel's Working Practice

Transcript

Giles: Welcome to the opening of a really, really, exciting exhibition, its one of the most exciting shows we’ve ever had here. This artist is totally unique, and the whole team, everybody involved in the gallery, is thrilled to be standing here tonight. I’d like to welcome him, this is Ruud here, many of you will have spoken to him this evening, hi Ruud, thank you for coming.

We’ll start in front of this remarkable picture which comes from the series Theatre, and we’ll come on to that in a second. For those who don’t already know, can you explain what were looking at here, how this is created, what you do to create it, where the images come from?

Ruud: Well, it’s a montage, I call it a montage. Its not a collage, it comes from collage which is with paper and glue and that sort of thing. I started out with those, but then the computer came, this is in the early 90s, and there I saw you could montage in Photoshop in a very perfect way. And then I started to do images that look like photos but are in fact totally constructed and this work is like all the trees have been photographed of course separately. All the leaves, actually everything you see is being photographed separately.

I have a large database with leaves, with trees, with all kinds of plants and flowers and whatever. And I work from that first, I collect a lot of photos and then I start creating. Yeah, I just start with an empty canvas and then just put in old trees and try to make a composition, which is a process that takes about a week to get the composition right and then I start to finish the work.

Giles: So, you will have spotted that one of the themes in a lot of these pictures is childhood. There are lots of pictures of children… why, and where does it come from and what does it mean?

Ruud: When I started with the theme of innocence, that was about 2005. Innocence was an important theme. I was working with beauty, that’s just a choice that I made and innocence is something that is actually quite beautiful I think. And children they don’t have a personality so much, so they can be used as symbols and I wanted to portray the symbol of innocence. I mean in an official work I mean if it’s an adult you will see immediately by his clothes what sort of person he is. So I wanted to work with the innocence and with beauty so I combined them with nature and the dresses from my childhood. So I started the whole series with children, the first one was with the white dress that’s a symbol of innocence of course. First I did the white girl and then I got criticized that the girl looked too white, she could have been an Aryan, somebody told me, and that was a bit shocking for me to hear. Then I tried a black child and that happened to be something quite new in art history because black children are not being used as a symbol for innocence and that started off the whole series called Worlds.

Giles: The references of your own childhood are very clear in the catalogue. They show you as a little boy in similar clothes. What was it like, was there a stereotypical childhood in the Netherlands, what was it like growing up in the 60s, was it very formal in your family?

Ruud: Yes, very formal, very simple, my childhood was like any other child’s in those days. You know, just very simple and a sort of religious childhood, so you have all those moments you have to go to church and all kinds of ceremonies take place and you’re sort of especially the girls are dressed in whites and they go to their communion in church and they become children of God and all that sort of thing. That is in the Netherlands for instance totally gone now, it’s a lost world completely. I didn’t particularly like it, but it was quite special.

Giles: And you see here I think children in their Sunday best, as you were as a little boy.

Ruud: Yes, I do like that feeling when the clothes were very uncomfortable and the Sundays were extremely boring and you had to go to grandmother, all that sort of thing, but the feeling of it is something that I try to portray in that kind of works like the series that is titled Sunday.

Giles: One thing I wanted to ask you: there is throughout all the work here a sort of attention, there’s an element of… I want to use the word sinister but it’s not quite the right word. There’s something unsettling about a lot of your work. And partly that because it’s not real, and you can sense that when you’re looking at that, even if you don’t quite know why, if you don’t know the techniques. How do you feel about that, is that deliberate, do you want people to sense that when they’re looking at pictures, or is it a sort of by product?

Ruud: Its taste I think, for a large part. There’s a tension in there that I like and so that’s just my taste, some people completely don’t like it. But it’s also an effect when you disturb reality I think. And that’s what I do of course, I mean I take it out of the reality, and still it looks photorealistic. And so you get this, that feeling, that strange feeling that something is wrong.

Giles: So much art, so much photography, is so walk-by-able. And I think Ruud’s work is un-walk-by-able, you have to stop and look at it and wonder what’s happening. And they drew people in, and I think that is true of all of his pictures. Ruud, thank you very much, that was really enlightening.