A Fantasy of Youth in the Photomontages of Ruud van Empel
Though his interests went against the grain of what was considered good taste when he was finding his voice as an artist, Dutch photographer Ruud van Empel has proven that he was right to follow his penchant for what he describes as “populist art, the imagery of ordinary people.” A selection of his lush, intricately constructed photomontages are currently on view at London’s Beetles + Huxley, his first significant solo exhibition in the UK. Through them, he demonstrates the beauty of bad taste, making manifest his claim: “I’m not interested in good taste. I can’t do anything with it.”
Van Empel draws inspiration from sources low and high. He keeps a collection of postcards featuring sentimental images of roses, religious figures, and backlit couples cavorting in fields. He also looks to the Dutch Old Masters, German Renaissance paintings, and examples of late 19th- and early 20th-century photomontage. These varied strands come together in his own photographs, which often feature children and adolescents immersed in fantastical, luxuriant natural settings. They reflect the artist’s exploration of our notions of childhood innocence and stem from his memories of that time in his own life. “My own youth is a reservoir that I can draw on,” he has said. “You cherish your youth, because life was full of expectations, because everything was so positive, and you had these intensely happy experiences. It is a paradise lost.”
A single photomontage can take van Empel up to three months to complete. Working with Photoshop, he stitches together a myriad of individual images into a seamless, albeit surreal, whole. Even his young protagonists’ faces are composed of many different parts. As a result, they appear as impeccable, almost alien creatures—like the two darling girls in Sunday #4 (2012), for example. Standing side-by-side and dressed in what looks like their Sunday best, the subjects stare obediently out at viewers. Their black skin is flawless, their hair styled into high Afros, which appear to echo the shape and texture of the manicured shrubs and trees surrounding them. They seem inscrutable—or are they open? They spring, after all, from the artist’s imagination, standing ready for whatever memories or meanings of youth we might wish to overlay onto them.