Friday, February 27, 2009

Ruud van Empel: Souvenir, Dawn, Moon, World @Stux

JTF (just the facts): A total of 22 works (20 photographs and 2 bronze sculptures), displayed throughout the entry, the two lower galleries, and the upper galleries. The photographs are glossy Cibachrome prints, mounted to Dibond and plexiglass (not framed), all from 2008, ranging in size from approximately 33x24 for the smallest images up to wall sized murals. (Installation shots at right.)

Comments/Context: While digital manipulation has become the rule rather than the exception in new contemporary photography, Ruud van Empel's approach is something altogether more radical than a simple touch up. His works are composed of literally thousands of fragments and components of various photographs, meticulously merged and constructed within the confines of his computer. His images of children in lush garden settings are at once realistically detailed and fantastically fabricated, creating a surreal world where beauty and innocence are mixed with a small dose of an undefined and unsettling undercurrent: what is really going on here?
Van Empel's process leads to pictures that are extremely painterly, with lush colors and classical compositions. In a previous post on Van Empel, we touched on connections to Rousseau and Disfarmer (post here); during this visit, we were struck by the relationship to early Renaissance portraits and allegorical paintings, where figures were abstracted to represent an idealized version of a person, rather than anyone in specific. The children in these images are expressionless, with big eyes and flawless skin; at one level they are perfect, at another they are just a bit creepy.

Van Empel has several series of works progressing at the same time, all of which are represented in this show of new work. The World images are likely the most recognizable to collectors, with deadpan white and black children situated in idealized tropical rain forests and lagoons (complete with water droplets and amazing insects). The Venus series uses this same setting for a series of symbolic nudes. The Moon series follows a similar formula of formal children against a natural background, only this time the images are moonlit, bringing darker blues and greens into van Empel's palette. The recent Dawn series has a more casual compositional style, with the children often resting in beds of flowers or lying in the leaves. While each of these projects has its own specific details, they all share the same general approach: the mix of natural beauty with the innocence of childhood, boiled down to neutral and artificial symbolic types.
A series of wholly different and much more personal pictures entitled Souvenir are shown in the upper galleries. In these images, van Empel constructs dense interior still lifes out of images of items from his childhood home. While many of the tokens and mementos have a kitchy quality to them, it is clear that each and every one has been wrapped in some personal significance or memory. Van Empel uses the same computer driven composite approach, and the resulting feeling of unreality of his other works is found in these smaller pictures as well. These pictures jump off the wall quite a bit less than the more vibrant tropical scenes, but perhaps show van Empel experimenting with new narrative directions beyond those which made him famous.

Overall, this is a terrific show, with many eye-popping works to draw your attention, many of the kids seeming even more surreal than in earlier images. There is a catalogue of van Empel's new work entitled Ruud van Empel Photoworks available from the gallery for $50.
The artist's website can be found here.
Collector's POV: The World, Venus, Moon and Dawn images in this show range from $14000 to $69000, with most in the $30000 range. The Souvenir series is priced between $9500 and $14000. The prints are in editions of various sizes, ranging from 7 to 13. The two white statues are $47000 each, in editions of 3. Van Empel's work has only been available in the secondary markets since 2007, but has performed well, fetching prices from approximately $15000 to $45000. Given the originality of his work, it seems likely that these prices will continue to rise.
Rating: ** (two stars) VERY GOOD (rating system described here)

Through March 7th

530 West 25th Street
New York, NY 10001

Another review of this show can be found at The Year in Pictures here.

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