Ruud van Empel’s ‘fantasy portraits’ at Beetles+Huxley

Faces too symmetrical, clothes perfectly ironed, trees with not a leaf out of place, there’s something unsettling about Dutch photographer Ruud van Empel’s work. It sits uncomfortably on the line between reality and fantasy; leaving the viewer full of questions. Who are these children? Where are they? Why is their gaze so blank?

The answer lies in Van Empel’s technique, one he has spent decades developing and perfecting. Photography is a medium used most often to document the outside world, with the artist seeking moments and finding beauty in that which already exists. Van Empel however, begins with an idea and then seeks out subjects that fit his imagination. But the scenes he imagines don’t really exist so he must construct them, picking little bits of reality and rearranging them to suit his fancy.

Brothers and Sisters #3 © Ruud van Empel / Courtesy Beetles+Huxley, London

What he creates aren’t photographs in a traditional sense. They are actually collages made with bits of different photographs. Even the faces are composites. “When I make a portrait I photograph several models in my studio in the same positions and with the same light. All these photos are placed under a name in my database. And from that database I start to work when I am ready to make a montage”, Van Empel explains.

Mood #11 © Ruud van Empel / Courtesy Beetles+Huxley, London

It takes him between 2 to 4 weeks to create each face, deliberately rendered anonymous by the process used to create them. “Anonymity is the objective. I don’t want to portray a specific person because I make fantasy portraits, and I can design the faces the way I want to have them which makes the whole work more interesting, I think.”

Sunday #2 © Ruud van Empel / Courtesy Beetles+Huxley, London

The models who pose for him are usually disappointed when they see the final work, unable to find traces of themselves. All they recognise is the clothes they wore for the shoot. Clothing plays a very significant role in Van Empel’s work, and the children he creates are always seen wearing clothes from the 1960s and 70s. “In those years the children dressed more archetypically”, clothing was more gendered he explains, “[today it is] difficult to see the difference in clothing between boys and girls.”

Moon #7 © Ruud van Empel / Courtesy Beetles+Huxley, London

His choice of era is also autobiographical, and references his own associations with childhood. “I portray the children as symbols of innocence, so classical clothing works better for me. [I found inspiration in] the photographs my father had taken during my own childhood, which was in the sixties, for me that was the ultimate look of innocence.”

Mood #4 © Ruud van Empel / Courtesy Beetles+Huxley, London

Through the years, his subjects have changed but the sort of clothing they appear in has stayed consistent. Even black children appear in clothes of a distinctly western aesthetic, making it particularly hard for the viewer to place the work within a temporal or geographical framework.

Moon #4 © Ruud van Empel / Courtesy Beetles+Huxley, London

If it is a case of harking back to his own childhood, the consistent appearance of black children in his body of work is interesting. Van Empel has often been questioned about this choice, particularly because it is unlikely to represent the demographic he grew up around in the Netherlands in the 60s. He dismisses questions about race,  however, insisting the bias is in the eye of the beholder. “The works with the black kids seem to catch a lot of attention, I do very little of those,” he says. Yet, shown here, are all the press images selected by Beetles + Huxley for the show.

Ruud van Empel’s work will be on display at Beetles+Huxley from February 21 to March 18 2017. On display will be 21 works, including 12 from his latest series Mood, never exhibited in the UK before.

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