I came across Ruud van Empel's work on Facebook because someone posted one of his stunning images from the eponymous “World” series. I was dumb struck. I instantly fell in love with his work and was astonished that I had not heard of him previously. Born in 1958 in Breda, the Netherlands, Ruud van Empel studied graphic design at the Academie St. Joost, Breda between 1976 and 1981. After some time working in the field of graphic design, film, television and interior design, van Empel purchased his first Apple Mac and began to learn about the wonders of Photoshop. This was a turning point and van Empel went on to pursue a successful career as a fine art photographer, despite much advice to the contrary. Utilizing a complex technique of photo montage van Empel produces stunningly beautiful, yet strange and captivating images. His work has been exhibited globally and exists in many private collections, including the art collection of superstar Elton John. Ruud van Empel was kind enough to take time out of his hectic schedule to discuss his career and his views on success in the field of fine art.
Adelaide Damoah (AD): I read that you studied fine art at the Academy of Fine Arts Sint Joost Breda between 1976-1981. Why did you decide to study graphic design?
Ruud Van Empel (RVE): I was advised to because I used to make comic books when I was a kid. The process involved lettering and design for the covers so it made sense. In addition, a number of people advised me not to go into art because I was told that it did not give you much of a future in terms of making money. That was wrong in a way. Anyway, graphic design was also nice, especially when I studied in the 1970's. It was a really interesting time in the world of art and design. There were many things happening, so it was very interesting to study that. After graduation, I had to work in graphic design studios. That was too boring for me! I did that for about half a year I think. Then I just stopped and started making art. I started to do painting and videos in the early eighties. I experimented with that. I also did some set design. I did all of the things that I did not study to find my way, while having an interesting job and making some money. I was not particularly commercial as I accepted jobs because they were interesting for me. I did set-design for a number of theatre plays and television shows. Slowly, I started to get involved in movies. I did art direction and the production design of a movie here in the Netherlands. In fact, I worked on a very nice movie which 20 years later, is still very popular here in the Netherlands.
AD: What is it called?
RVE: I can not translate it into English, but essentially, the two main characters are a couple who act like children. They have very big teeth and look funny, it is a comedy. It was hilarious and very campy. This was done in 1989. The collaboration between the two actors and I was successful because we really understood each other. We went on to do a couple of television shows. There is a channel here in the Netherlands and they do some experimental television. We did a nice show on there. Translated, it was called “Creative with corks.” It was the kind of show that taught you how to make creative things out of corks. It was a comedy. That kind of work was very interesting and exciting to do for a while. I did it for about five years. I finally decided to only make art because it was all too limited. By the time I stopped television, it was in the mid nineties. By that time, everything became very commercial. This meant that the artistic starting point was losing ground and things became commercial. I wanted to work for more artistic programmes. All of the artistic programmes were discontinued so I made a decision to stop there and and carefully start with art.
AD: What was the process of transitioning from that to art.
RVE: In 1994, I bought my first Apple Macintosh. It was a Power Mac at that time. A lot of things were possible because of that, it was very interesting. I started out with a series called “The Office.” Those were ideas that I had previously for set designs and the Apple Macintosh allowed me to make them in Photoshop. It did not cost any money. I could build as big and as nice as I liked and it became an art piece instead of a real set. In reality, I could never make those kind of sets because it was too experimental, too expensive and there was no time, but in Photoshop, I could do it! It got completely out of hand. I started working more and more. After working for about three years in Photoshop, I presented it to a gallery in Amsterdam and they liked it immediately. I got an exhibition there, and then I got one in Germany and in France. Suddenly, I had a big success with that work. That is how it started.
AD: That was your very first series, the Office?
AD: Did you teach yourself how to manipulate images in this way?
RVE: Yes, just by doing it. Somebody taught me how to work with it- all of the basic things you can do with the programme. Then after that you just have to start working. You discover all of the possibilities when you are working. That was very inspiring for me. I was working 10 hours a day every day! I did not get out of my house much! It was a good thing to buy a computer and start working in that way.
AD: I read that your first official solo show was the one in 1999 at the Groninger Museum, under the title “Waterpas of Optisch recht?” (Level or Optically straight?).
RVE: The title of that show was made up by those actors that I worked with before. It was kind of a joke that when you hang things like paintings on the wall, there are two ways of doing it to make sure that it is straight.. When you do it by eye, this way is optical right. But if you do it by measuring, it is more precise. I used to work on the sets that I did for those two actors. One of them heard me repeating those lines and that is how we came up with the title.
AD: What did that work involve?
RVE: It involved a lot of poster design. The first photo works were shown there.
AD: Did you sell any work?
RVE: The museum bought two works at that time. I just had a big show with them last year. In 1999, they decided they wanted to do a big show with me in the future and that happened last year.
AD: I read that your international breakthrough came in 2005 with the series entitled “World Moon Venus,” at the “Picturing Eden” exhibition. What was that exhibition all about?
RVE: That show was curated by Deborah Klochko. She is a curator from New York. She saw my work on the internet and I think later on, she saw it here in 2004. She just sent me an email asking if I wanted to participate in that exhibition, just like that. That is the good thing about the internet and email- everyone can contact you very quickly. She wanted me to be in her exhibition she was doing about Eden.. The image of Eden and how that is depicted in works today. This was in 2005. We were in the middle of George W Bush times and America was not very popular. It was a country that was kicked out of the Garden of Eden, just like the bible story where Adam and Eve were kicked out of the garden of Eden for doing wrong... That was her feeling. All kinds of contemporary artists were invited. She thought my work would fit well with the show and she put my work on the cover of the catalogue. Immediately, I got a lot of attention. At the same time, my gallery was showing some of my work in Miami and we sold about 35 pieces of work in four days.
|World #1 2005. copyright Ruud van Empel|
RVE: Picturing Eden was in January 2006. I also had my first solo show in a gallery in New York in January 2006, so that all came together at that point. I was working on the “World” series. World, Moon, Venus.. I became internationally successful at that point.
AD: Would you agree that 2005 was your breakthrough?
RVE: Yes, I would agree, that is when my name got known world wide and the work was selling very fast. Prices were getting higher. Elton John saw my work and bought it. All those things happened at once. It can go very fast.
AD: How did you depict Eden in that show?
RVE: There were a couple of the “World” images, like World Number 1. The image was of a black girl in a white dress. This was very popular and it worked very well for the black community in the USA, because they were not used to having a black person depicted in such a positive way in fine art.
AD: Yes and this is part of what excites me about your work. They are depicted in a stunningly beautiful and positive way. What inspired you to focus on dark skinned black children as subjects in your work?
RVE: At that point in that series, I decided I wanted to do something with beauty. It also comes from my technique that I was developing at that point. You have to find a way to make things look beautiful, because if you start to montage photos in an experimental way, you find that the sizes of things do not fit relative to each other. If you start to do that, things start to become very ugly. In a photo, things have a two dimensional feeling. This applies to the faces, because the faces are montaged completely. The eyes, the eyebrows, the mouth, even the pupils. All of those things are montaged, so the montage is very detailed and I have to be very careful that things are right, that they look as if they could be real. I am therefore very focused on making it beautiful, or not ugly, because it becomes ugly when it is not correct. If the mouth is just a little bit too big, you see it and feel it immediately and it becomes ugly. If you look at the series that I did- “Studies for Women,” you will see that I was still developing my technique. The technique was not perfected yet. You can see that the images of the women are kind of frightening. I did not make the montage perfect. I was very aware that I must make it as perfect as possible and that means that it must be beautiful. This is important to me, I don’t want to make an ugly image. Beauty is important to me and it is one of the things that still impresses me. I am 52 years old now and lots of things that I used to find interesting 20 years ago, I don't find interesting any more. But beauty is something that always stays.. I chose children because innocence is also a kind of beauty as a subject, so those two things together make the world series. The nice thing about the World number one also is- I did not know this at that point- an art historian said that black children had never been the subject of innocence before in this way. This was the first time in art history. It was nice. I was surprised. But before I did “World Number 1,” I made an image of a white girl in a white dress with pigtails standing in a birch forest. I was criticised for that picture because she looked so incredibly white. People said that it reminded them of the Nazi era- that she was so white that she must be an Arian. I was not thinking about that at all. I was very surprised that people made that connection.
|Untitled #1. Copyright Ruud van Empel.|
AD: I would not make that connection at all. I am looking at the image now and it is a very beautiful image.
RVE: At that point, I became aware that people are very sensitive to what they see. They can make all kinds of connections to things. If they saw a girl with pigtails, they connected it to the second world war. This was kind of crazy to me. From that, I started “World” and I made the girl black. I wanted to see how that would look. I put her in a white dress and that is how “World” started.
AD: Congratulations. It is a beautiful series. That is what drew my attention to your work. I also read and saw a clip of the Dutch television documentary, “Beyond Innocence.” How did that come about?
RVE: The exhibition that I got in the Groninger Museum was decided already ten years before hand, but not confirmed. It was confirmed in 2007, so lots of things were happening at that point in my life. Both of my parents died for instance. My brother, who is a professional documentary film maker and camera man, spoke to me and I said maybe we could film a documentary... Maybe we could film a video at the exhibition. But my brother was kind of ambitious and he talked to the television network here in the Netherlands and they decided that they wanted to co produce this documentary. There is a channel in the Netherlands where they make art documentaries. They said it could be one of those films. That is how it started.
|Beyond Innocence DVD|
AD: How was it received?
RVE: It was very well received and people were very excited.
AD: I can imagine because just watching the short clip on your website, it looked very good.
RVE: It took three years to film. One day, I heard that Elton John was coming to the Netherlands for a concert. I asked his photography manager- I have contacts to her because he bought my work. I said I wanted to interview him for four minutes for the film. They agreed to ask him, but said they were not sure if he would do it. He ended up giving us twenty five minutes! It was a big surprise and was a very nice interview. He normally refuses interviews but he did not refuse me. At the end of the interview he said, “I had a very nice day! Yesterday, I met Andreas Gursky and today, I met you!” It was really exciting. Later on, I went to see his show and he sang a song for me!
RVE: Yes! At the beginning of our film.
AD: You have done lots of exhibitions and Elton John collects your work, you have also won lots of prizes, including the Charlotte Kohler Prize in 1993. What does success in the art world mean to you?
RVE: The last prize sort of involved my art work as the prizes were given for all of the work that I did- including television work, set design, graphic design, interior design and art work. They gave me the prize for all of that together. That is important when you are young especially, to get prizes, to give you a push. To bring you to the attention of other people. For example, the Charlotte Kohler Prize was for artists up to the age of 34 I think... The Werkman prize, is for mid career artists- like early forties. I actually won the Werkman prize on the same day as 9/11. The attack was announced as they were about to give me the prize. There was a lot of confusion and they did not know what to do. They quickly gave me the prize, there were no photos and every one went home. This meant that I got no publicity or attention for my work. The attacks were so terrible that of course all of the attention went there. That was a pity.
AD: What would you say were some of the biggest challenges that you have had to face as an artist?
RVE: Getting a good gallery was very difficult, especially here in the Netherlands. It is a small country so, there are not so many possibilities. I was very firm in what I wanted. I wanted to be treated honestly by the galleries. I was very firm in my agreements with them. The moment they did not stick to their agreement, I was out of there. That was the hardest thing for me- to get honest, good and fair treatment from galleries.
AD: How do you personally define success in the art world at this point in your career.
RVE: If I am able to have exhibitions in museums and public places where people can go and see it, that to me is success. That is the best thing to have. To be able to show your work. They give you exhibitions because they like and are interested in your work. That is the best part of success I think. For the other part, in terms of the commercial side, if your work is selling well enough, you can live from that. Of course, that is very comfortable and nice. I have that situation so I am very happy with that.
AD: I would take it that from your definition, you would consider yourself successful?
RVE: Yes. I am not working for success. I am just working for my work. My work develops and I like to make work. That is why I do it. People like Damien Hirst I think have been working with all kinds of publicity stunts, I don’t know exactly how that works, but anyway, he got really big using a strategy. That is another way of achieving success I think. If you get a lot of attention put on you then automatically things will happen and people will be drawn to your work. That is not the kind of success that I am after. I just want to be able to work as an artist for as long as possible... To make work. I hope that I will be able to show it in galleries and museums. That is what I am aiming for. If that works then I am successful.
|Venus #5. Copyright Ruud van Empel|
AD: There is this notion that has been propagated throughout history of the starving artist. Has that ever been your experience?
RVE: That is a myth, the starving artist. Actually that myth has caused a lot of problems here in the Netherlands. Because of this myth that Rembrandt and Vincent Van Gogh died for, they have started sponsoring art here in the Netherlands. The problem with that is that certain people decide which artists get sponsored and which artists do not. From there, all of the problems start. I am one of those artists from the Netherlands that was not being sponsored in his early career, so it was more difficult for me to build a career. The myth about poor artists- well Rembrandt was not poor, he just could not handle money. The same goes for Vincent Van Gogh. He got a certain amount of money from his brother each month. It was so much that a family of eight people could live from that. For him, it was not enough, because he was spending constantly. That was the problem. For artists- you have to work hard if you want to get your name out there and be noticed. It does not come easily. The whole idea of an artist sitting in his studio in the attic or basement on the floor is something from 200 years ago! It does not work like that any more. Now you have the internet, you can have a website, you can do all kinds of things to get your work noticed. There is a whole market nowadays, there are a lot of people interested in art and buying art. It is therefore possible to have a career in art. It was not like that in the 1920's or 30's. There are well known stories. People like Magritte or Man Ray. They had been poor for most of their lives and when they were old, in their 70's, the art market started developing, mostly in the United States. They went there and sold work and finally made some money for the rest of their lives. But those days are over. It has all changed now.
AD: What would you say was the ultimate dream for your work?
RVE: My big dream... That the work gets better and better. I am getting more critical of course. As I do more work, it becomes more difficult for me to make work that satisfies my own wishes. If the work gets better in future, that would be the ultimate dream.
AD: What advice would you have for aspiring artists wishing to follow in your footsteps?
RVE: To follow your heart always. To work hard and to know know your goals. One has to know what one wants. For example, this gallery or that museum, to make this series of work. Don’t let yourself be distracted and follow your heart. Following your heart is what will make you feel good in the end. Like I said before, everyone advised me not to go into art. If I had followed that advice, I would be a poor, frustrated and unhappy man today! In the beginning, everyone said that my first work was not art. They said it was ridiculous. I got very negative reviews. Everyone hated it! But I just kept going because that is what I wanted. You must have belief that you can do it.
AD: Do you have any new projects or shows coming up?
RVE: Yes. I have my first show at the MOPA- the photographic museum of San Diego. The director of that museum is Deborah Klochko. She became head of that museum. That show will then travel through the United States. That is the first museum exhibition coming up. Next year, I have one in Antwerp, Belgium, one in Stockholm, Sweden and in September 2012, I have an exhibition of new works at Flatland gallery here in Amsterdam.
|Ruud van Empel|
Ruud van Empel has been represented by Flatland Gallery in Amsterdam since 2005 and is also represented by Stux Gallery New York.