PATH TO EDEN
Van Empel's distinctive work embraces a spectrum of references. The luxurious palette of Dutch Master Dirk Hals can be seen in clothing worn by the disproportionate figures of German Renaissance painter Lucas Cranach the Elder, all collaged together in the effigy of photo-montage pioneer Henry Peach Robinson. They are paintings, really, using new techniques. But they are paintings in the tradition of the comic strip. Where Hugo Pratt had Corto Maltese forever going back in the history of big events that we know about, van Empel dives back into a history that we don't, his own, respectable history in The Netherlands.
Van Empel's habits are surprisingly close to editing or archiving. The engaging Dutch master of vernacular photography, Erik Kessels, collects private photographs, primarily in the form of those albums that reach the flea markets after the death of their owners. By having the acuteness and the openness to see that private pictures add up to something very different to the public audience. Van Empel does exactly the same; only he doesn't work with whole photographs repurposed, but with fractions of them. A pleat in a dress may well have looked a little like that at some point, but it was not that colour, not connected to the pleats next door, not hanging on the girl you see, not that size, never existed at the same date or in the same place as the knees it drapes over….
Francis Hodgson 2015
Van Empel's pioneering techniques have completely changed the face of digital photography. Using a vast library of digital body parts, fabrics and foliage, Van Empel creates dream-like photographic utopias, where nothing is exactly as it seems. Each figure is a hybrid; resulting from his painstaking synthesis of hundreds of diverse fragments taken from his own photographs. Eyes, noses and lips are collaged together to create the highly polished new human forms that inhabit his images. The process is painstaking: a single work can take up to three months to complete. The colours and textures are individually altered, and each setting digitally staged. Van Empel uses photoshop to utterly transform reality, and turn it into something at once alluring and unsettling.
As for his central and even composition, it is an absolutely key element of Van Empel's brand. His pictures look like posters. They look, therefore, as though they will have a single message to be gleaned quickly and absorbed. But they don't. They are posters which withhold their message — a most unusual and intriguing thing in this era of ultra-rapid communication by bullet-points or straplines and ultra-short attention spans. As viewers, we look at a Van Empel with a strange acknowledgement that he has held us there for longer than we had expected. What they are about is not so clear. Or better: it's up to us.
Francis Hodgson 2015