Child of nature 

Ruud Van Empel explores an exotic World

In the Walt Disney vision of enchanted nature, Snow White's porcelain beauty compels all manner of songbirds, fawns, chipmunks and raccoons to gather like disciples at her skirts. Dutch photographer Ruud Van Empel's digitally manipulated images also imagine nature as a fantastic paradise where flora and fauna swoon and pose for the children in their midst.

In Van Empel's photographs children as exotic as hothouse orchids stand stock still amid scenes of nature's ripe, green bounty. Tiny, knowing owls perch on a little boy's hand. A ruby walking stick stands on another boy's head. Scarab beetles, blue spotted frogs, monkeys, songbirds, salamanders and moths flock to the children, as if following the scent of honey.

The children, long and lean, sport the enormous eyes, miles of supple flesh and distended bellies of coltish creatures just barely out of their damp pants. Like chorus girls decorating Ginger Rogers in a Busby Berkeley musical, the lily pads and bugs genuflect obediently around the central spectacle of the child. Each bud seems to open in celebration, every palm frond announces the child's presence as surely as a gilt frame announces the magnificence of the painting it holds. The greens, from rich, ruddy moss to newborn-cricket green seem lit from behind like an image displayed in a light box.

As anyone with a good memory or who's been around them knows, children do have an enchanted relationship with nature that requires no Walt Disney (or Ruud Van Empel) to concoct.

Nature is to childhood what the Internet is to adulthood: a playground of possibility, a place where hours are devoured and outrageous fantasies entertained. Van Empel's lush, sensationally acute photographs capture that immersive quality of a child's point of view, of reality fired by an imagination still defined by the wild, the unconscious and primal forces that dissipate with adulthood.

And yet, like a generation of photographers from Gregory Crewdson to Loretta Lux who have expanded the theatrical and malleable properties of photography, creating elaborate sets or using Photoshop technology to exaggerate or ornament reality, Van Empel does, in fact, concoct.

His tableaux are part film set, part painting in which the graced and magical state of childhood is preserved in the photograph's miraculous amber. Reality, in Van Empel's hands, ratchets up a notch or two, glazed in an acrylic sheen and as stylized as a Melies movie set or an erotic paradise painted by Henri Rousseau. As in Rousseau's Freudian reveries with their lurking animals, opalescent, mystical moons and figures devoured by a consuming green wild, amidst Van Empel's bounty there are indications of menace and sexuality.

In the largest sample of works on view, from Van Empel's World series, pitcher plants and dangling gourds mime phalluses and many of the trees sprout vicious thorns. Venus flytraps lurk with their devouring maws open and vines curl like serpents overhead. Van Empel's Eden hovers on the child's own border between innocence and knowledge, between childhood as a preserve and sanctuary before the corrupting "real" world moves in.

Because the children in this selection of Van Empel's work are as iconically and purposefully black as the jet-black figures in one of Kerry James Marshall's paintings, blackness becomes as much a theme in this exhibition as innocence or nature. In a world where white flesh is the Edenic ideal -- the icon of innocence and purity -- the choice to highlight black children in Van Empel's work (and in this selection at Jackson) is especially welcome. The images brim and overflow with a romance and drama often missing from a whiteness-fixated culture's vision of life.

Several other works by Van Empel, of comely, sexily clad white women are also on display at Jackson, though they only serve as an instructive reminder that it is in difference and not conforming to expectations that this artist delights.

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