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 began to work on his first photographic project entitled 'The Office'. This series of digitally constructed portraits showing individuals in imagined workplaces initiated the digital collage work for which he would later become known.Read More
Using a vast library of digital body parts, fabrics and foliage, van Empel creates a range of dream-like photographic utopias, where nothing is exactly as it seems. Each of his figures is a hybrid, resulting from his painstaking synthesis of hundreds of diverse fragments taken from his own photography: eyes, noses and lips are collaged together to create the entirely new human forms that inhabit his images. The process is painstaking, as a single work can take up to three months to complete. The results are often an uncanny synthesis of the alluring and the unsettling. His methods engage with questions of identity, truth and artificiality in an age where digital simulation is ubiquitous.
Van Empel’s initial experimentation with photography was a project of passion, rather than a self-conscious foray into fine art. His first series, 'The Office' (1995–2001), revised traditional methods of photographic editing–manually altering analogue film in a dark room–in exchange for a new, digital approach. This project bore the restraints of technology at the time. Largely black and white, it was made using a computer that ‘crashed every five minutes’.
Prompted by a desire for a more minimalist aesthetic, at the turn of the century van Empel began experimenting with Photoshop. He began a series entitled 'Study for Women' (1999–2002), exploring the female form and the domestic interior. Here, van Empel photographed mannequins from shops and rendered them more life-like with the addition photographs of real eyes and skin. The result is uncanny. As Ruud Schenk, curator of the Groninger Museum, writes: ‘As a spectator you feel that there is something not quite right about the depiction of these women … This generates a certain discomfort.’
In 2009 van Empel went on to present three bodies of work as part of the touring exhibition, Picturing Eden, curated by Deborah Klochko of George Eastman House: Venus, Moon and World. These three series of digitally constructed portraits of children have since become van Empel’s most exhibited and recognisable works.
Van Empel’s work mediates on the themes of innocence and vulnerability through the presence of adolescents: wide-eyed and enrobed in their ‘Sunday best’, their simulated presence explores the notions of childhood, memory and nostalgia. In particular, his series 'Dawn' (2008), which places twenty first century children amongst Edenic foliage, jarringly juxtaposes mythological archetypes of genesis with modern computer technology. Another salient motif in van Empel’s work is the presence of black children. Although not intentionally political, van Empel has commented on the portrayal of black children in Dutch media as ‘poor’ or ‘suffering’. He has said, ‘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.’
Van Empel has gone on to produce several more bodies of work, including the 'Still Life' (2014) series, in which he constructs vast assemblages from photographs of individual objects, and the 'Floresta' (2018) series, in which artificial forest-scapes are created. Here, van Empel probes the aesthetics of beauty and the trope of the pastoral through his use of composite imagery.
Ruud van Empel’s work has been exhibited extensively: 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. The artist lives and works in Amsterdam.
Text courtesy Huxley-Parlour.