The most compelling images in the exhibition, from the 2008 series Souvenir, were occasioned by the death of van Empel’s mother. When he cleared out her house and found a lot of stuff associated with his childhood and family life, he photographed the objects and then Photoshopped and deployed the images to create homely, theatrical still lifes in which each item carries a tamped-down crackle of feeling. The concept and execution owe much to Joseph Cornell’s shadow boxes, but the feeling tone has none of Cornell’s whimsy, secrecy, and mystery. Van Empel wrote a short poem to accompany each image, and they have the same flat observational dispassionateness as the images; this works to his advantage, since the pictures are about how time estranges us (or not) from our experience. Here’s the caption to a picture that offers up a juicer, mini-blender, colander, ladle, and other things:
The plastic from the toothbrush holder has almost perished
The chocolate box contains my school diplomas
This could be our kitchen, in 1959
All these original objects from that kitchen are not being used anymore
But they still exist.
The Souvenir series is more meditative than his other work and carries a shadowy melancholy. One image in particular charms and disarms. It displays the stuff of infancy: milk teeth in jewelry boxes, teething rings, a teddy missing one eye, a tarnished can of powder, and other things van Empel associates with his origins. He grew up in a traditional 1960s bourgeois Roman Catholic Dutch household, and these objects are, I think, the accoutrements of his own internalized Eden. They have (to quote Hopkins again) a “deep down freshness.” In the poem that accompanies the image, van Empel writes:
The Babyderm container is still filled with baby powder
It smells good, even after 50 years.