Ruud van Empel: Strange Beauty, on view at the Museum of Photographic Arts till February 3, 2013. 1649 El Prado, Balboa Park. 619-238-7559; mopa.org.
The Garden of Eden is a foundational dream in consciousness. The Garden is where (in the Jerusalem Bible’s version of Genesis) “Yahweh caused to grow every kind of tree, enticing to look at and good to eat,” and Yahweh settled man in the Garden of Eden “to cultivate and take care of it.” When the woman and man ate fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, that sweet thing inducted the couple into an existence of pain and toil. Yahweh scolds them:
Accursed be the soil because of you!
Painfully will you get your food from it
As long as you live.
By the sweat of your face
Will you earn your food,
Until you return to the ground.
Adam’s curse was the curse of work. After the fall, creation would become, as Hopkins has it in a poem, “seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil:/And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell.” We’ve since lived in exile, dreaming of lost origins. One kind of dreaming that has fallen to artists and writers is the making of representations of that First Place.
The ascetic narrative in Genesis allows us to picture different Edens. The pedestrian version imagines the Garden as an emerald preserve, preternaturally becalmed, groomed like a tended plot, the beasts of the field benign and convivial like those in the painter Edward Hicks’s several versions of Peaceable Kingdom. But in a different dream, Eden is a prolix, overgrown tangle of vegetation, where animals of all sizes and temperaments — beetles, snakes, cows and crocodiles, lions and tigers, hummingbirds and hawks — go about their groaning and growling and twittering business. This Garden is a noisy, energetic stir where ripe fruit falls and leaves turn to meal but where cycles of decay, death, and restoration are essential to the perfection and uniqueness of the place.
The Dutch photographer Ruud van Empel, born in 1958, whose career is being showcased in an exhibition at the Museum of Photographic Arts, came to prominence several years ago with photographs of children posed in lush green settings clearly meant to represent his own version of Eden: a picture perfect, maniacally tidy, mildly hallucinated diorama. Outsized or miniaturized dragonflies, beetles, birds, and grubs crawl upon or hover above plump spears of tall grass and super-size petals and fronds. All our mental images of the Garden are constructions, of course, but van Empel’s photographs don’t simply remind us of that. They actually depict the mechanical process by which images are fabricated because they’re collages.
Photographic collage has been around a long time. Early image-makers experimented with layering exposures. In 1858, the Englishman Henry Peach Robinson crafted a single image from five negatives that depicted a girl dying of consumption. Robinson bluntly stated his ethos. “Any ‘dodge,’ or trick, or conjuration of any kind,” he wrote, “is open to the photographers’ use so long as that it belongs to his art and is not false to nature.” Van Empel follows these axioms, but his images are Photoshopped. Before it enters a photograph, every leaf blade, caterpillar, and dewdrop, every hand and nose and eye and pearl and glove and button, exists somewhere else. He selects visual facts, from his own photographs or scanned from other sources, then digitally glues them together. In his World series, where a black child is posed in a dense garden of colossal spears of foliage, each element, down to the water beads on the heavily veined leaves, has been Photoshopped into the composite we see.
Van Empel’s work is really about artificiality. He wants us to see the constructed nature of likeness or similitude. The imagery comes out of a surrealist matrix. André Breton many decades ago declared that surrealism combines two or more objects in order to create an object that never before existed. The enthralling, disturbing strangeness of the result — consider Meret Oppenheim’s fur-covered cup, saucer, and spoon from 1936 — is what surrealists meant by the Uncanny. Van Empel’s inclination was evident quite early in his career. His mid-1990s Office series depicts executives seated confidently at desks surrounded by alarmingly odd objects, and the black-and-white images in his 2002 Photosketches recall effects familiar from de Chirico, Magritte, and Man Ray: empty doorways, wedges of exaggerated light, slices of hard shadow, and unlikely objects (a chicken, a doll, a balloon, a manikin) all afloat in fuzzy atmospheres induce a feeling of unreasonable foreboding.
Van Empel remains loyal to the Uncanny. In a recent image, the unnaturally angled head of a child perches on a clenched, bundled-up body, its features faintly smeared so that we can’t quite bring into focus the face that’s boldly staring right at us. In other photos, black-skinned children, set in a made-to-order Eden, shock us into recognizing our expectations about the whiteness of the human in the Garden. He knows he’s unsettling us with the manipulated extremity of swampy greens and glassy blues in the enveloping vegetation — they starkly set off the blackness of the children’s skin and the pop-out whites of their eyes. In his Venus series, van Empel wants us to see louche pop culture fused to high-art seriousness. Here, too, the subjects are budding, pubescent black girls whose languid postures imitate the slinky look of fashion models but, also just as convincingly, imitate the 16th-century Lucas Cranach painting that inspired van Empel’s version. His goddess, like Cranach’s, wears a necklace, but the whiteness of the pearls jumps so hotly off the black skin that it carries a disconcerting erotic jolt.
This sort of art makes my jaws ache. It’s self-aware to a stultifying fault. I find its weirdness and deadpan hyperspecificity contrived and airless. The landscapes in his Theater series present the natural order as a suffocating, manipulated environment. It’s nature as a stage set, a fanatically tidy scene where only scripted events can take place. There’s no wobble in this kind of over-controlled, locked-down art — the incipient surprise of chance doesn’t stand a chance. Its subject is its own artificiality and the inherent manipulativeness of images of any kind, and it has a neutral, dulled-down affect. When the black children in their Edens mildly pout, the Photoshopped pout carries all the inauthenticity we might expect from the process that crafted it. Most of the figures in his work look like humanoid automata, none more so than a bashful self-portrait modeled after a dyspeptic 1912 painting by Otto Dix.
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.