Ruud van Empel creates works that blend hyperrealism with artificiality, at once authentic yet uncannily surreal. His photographs, while physically existing before one’s eyes, do not truthfully exist at all. Weaving an intricate web of imagined picture planes, van Empel beckons you into his utopia, constructed and contrived into a smorgasbord of lush foliage, velvety skin, and piercing eyes.
In order to achieve his magical compositions, the artist conducts an intricate collage technique. Van Empel first developed what he refers to as his ‘photomontage process’ in 1996, while assembling scanned objects, photographs, and newspaper, by hand, to create the series The Office. After painstakingly cutting, sticking, and rearranging his collages in the darkroom, van Empel eventually moved to a digital editing software, preferring its ease of use. Starting by digitally building figures and natural landscapes from hundreds of miniature photograph fragments, van Empel assembles his images with assiduous attention. His finished pieces are composed entirely from his own photographs, which are stored in a database containing more than 100,000 images.
When considering the artist’s process, it is appropriate to reflect on the great strides taken by avant garde artists during the early 1900s and beyond, ultimately paving the way for van Empel’s own practice. Van Empel follows in the footsteps of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, who notably coined the term ‘collage’ deriving from the French world coller, to glue. Within their newly formed Cubist movement, Braque and Picasso created three dimensional assemblages depicting everyday objects nestled amongst painterly marks. The two artists incorporated found materials including wallpaper, cloth, and rope into their collages, developing a body of work known as synthetic cubism. Picasso’s Bottle of Vieux Marc, Glass, Guitar and Newspaper (1913), for example, breaks into the viewer’s environment, pulling them further into the canvas via snippets of newspaper and text, only to spit them out through a series of considered, sharp, black lines. Synthetic cubism, with its desperate need to connect with reality, was a revolutionary transformation of the 20th century European art scene.
Cubism was eventually surpassed by the photomontages of the Dadaists and Surrealists, who in turn assembled an array of images to protest the First World War and reflect the inner workings of the unconscious mind. By 1956, British pop artist Richard Hamilton had ushered in a new form of photomontage experimentation with his collage Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?. Collected from American magazines, Hamilton’s collage includes instantly recognisable household products amidst a chaotic interior, peppered with bold posters and scantily clad figures. Hamilton and his contemporaries utilised popular imagery in order to parody American advertising’s power in manipulating people’s lifestyles. Youthful, transient, expendable, and gimmicky, pop art collages were designed for and consumed by a mass audience.
Collage has existed throughout modern art history as a constant, repeatedly appearing in many different guises. The examples mentioned above barely scratch the surface when considering the multitude of ways artists plucked, cut, and assembled images and objects from disparate locations. As it can be seen, collage is a powerful medium. It can be utilised as a form of satire, protest, or psychological analysis; constantly altering and adapting according to the social landscape it finds itself expressing. As such, van Empel’s collage technique is uniquely his own, straying away from the ideals laid before him by Picasso, Braques, and Hamilton. These avant garde artists were loud and bold, driven by an itching desire to make themselves known and break down the norms of the traditional art world. In this sense, van Empel’s process is slower, and far less concerned with disruption. His collages are indiscernible to the human eye, toying with the very nature of artifice. While van Empel’s photographs may appear entirely realistic at first, beneath the surface they are merely an amalgamation of hundreds of tiny truths. With the dynamic history of collage behind him, van Empel is at ease to manipulate and augment the very nature of the technique. Thus, he transforms his hybrid digital creations into mosaics of illusion