Ruud van Empel, Identities @Stux + Haller

JTF (just the facts): A total of 15 large scale color works, alternately framed in black/white and unmatted or face mounted to plexi and unframed, and hung against white walls in the entry area, the main gallery space, and the smaller back room. All of the works are archival pigment prints, made in 2013 and 2014. Physical sizes range from roughly 24×17 to 70×49 (or reverse) and the prints are available in editions of 5, 6, 7, or 10. The exhibit also includes a video, shown on a small screen in the entry area. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: It’s been a little more than two years since Ruud van Empel’s last solo gallery show in New York, and given the rapid pace of innovation at the digital end of the photographic spectrum where van Empel’s artwork lives, it seems reasonable to think that we might see evidence of the artist extending his reach in bold directions. But while there are plenty of new ideas to be found on the walls here, this show has the feeling of an artist only tentatively stepping beyond his already successful approaches, dipping a toe in the water here and there to test the temperature rather than diving in with aggressive abandon. It is a show of incremental tweaks and twists, perhaps a transitional point where a multitude of smaller visual ideas are being tried out before one or more rises to the top and offers a clear path forward.

Van Empel is probably best known for his eerily plausible but clearly not real composite portraits of children (both black and white, often in their Sunday best clothes) in various leafy jungles and teeming gardenscapes, and this tried-and-true formula has been modified in half a dozen ways in his newest pictures. He has introduced all-over gardens in glorious bright yellow and softer whites/pastels, experimented further with the relative scale of the child and the setting (an extra large head, a tiny figure dwarfed by towering leaves, a middle range figure seen through foreground foliage), and made his pattern play and color matching more vibrant. All of these ideas bring momentary freshness to van Empel’s foundation approach (the dark nude against the blast of yellow being the most successful of the new experiments), but in truth, these enhancements haven’t moved him much beyond what we already know.

Other works on view find him rethinking and reworking ideas he’s explored previously, from dense school-portrait like groups of kids (this time at the pool in swimsuits), to gardens devoid of a central human figure (a wide cathedral of vertical cacti and a close in sea of fluffy dandelions punctuated by a broken doll’s head and a spider). New ideas come in the form of a full body female nude set against a non-descript wallpapered interior, her head turned awkwardly to the side and decorated with a dollop of bouncy 80s hair, and a classic table top still life left to rot, the entire contents of the meal (the soup, the beer, the slice of bread, the fish) all covered in fuzzy green mold. Here we see van Empel testing himself with new pictorial challenges (specifically in digitally reconstructing the conventions of the still life genre), but it’s unclear which of these will lead somewhere durably innovative, as both feel provisional (the gathering of crystals is particularly weak), a start but not exactly a finish.

Ruud van Empel’s durability as a contemporary photographer is squarely rooted in his innovative composite process, and in the instantly recognizable aesthetic he has developed around that system of picture building. A searching, bridge building show like this one signals that he’s actively looking for something more, and the coalesced answers to those now open aesthetic/conceptual questions likely won’t appear until a bit further down the line.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced between $8500 and $78000, based on size and place in the edition. Van Empel’s prints have become more consistently available in the secondary markets, with recent prices at auction ranging between roughly $5000 and $120000.

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JTF (just the facts): Co-published in 2022 by 5 Continents Editions (here) and Magnin-A Gallery. Hardcover (23.5 x 31 cm), 86 pages, with 45 color illustrations. Includes essays by Renée ... Read on.

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