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The Photoworks of Jean Ruiter
by Jonathan Green
Previous Director UCR/California Museum of Photography

The California Museum of Photography has been delighted to have had the opportunity to be one of the primary venues for showing Jean Ruiter's work in America. Reciprocally, Jean has been one of the prime movers in bringing California photograph to northern Europe. Because of this reciprocity, it is understandable that in Europe, where even in the nineties the imperative of the "decisive moment" continues to define the acceptable photographic aesthetic, Ruiter's photo-constructions are frequently seen as being executed in an {American} idiom. His work counters much that Europeans understand as the photographic aesthetic: it is neither a seamless depiction of a real moment, the finding of order out of ordinary, daily, visual chaos, nor an inquiry into the psychological resonance of the pictorial. As the American "combine" work of the last four decades--work derived in part from the experiments of Rauschenberg and Warhol-- it presents a collaged and fabricated world in which the photograph is only one element in a layered commentary.

Yet rather than deriving from this fundamentally American idiom, Ruiter's photo-work is, in fact, thoroughly European in its obsession, methodology, and presentation. Its essential concern is not synoptic or acquisitive as is Rauschenberg's. Nor does it mimic Rauschenberg's archetypal American belief that painting can "act in that gap between art and life." Ruiter's photo-works rather act in the gap between the present and the past. Indeed, Ruiter's work is underwritten by that primary European obsession with analyzing contemporary culture in light of Europe's own classical history.

The touchstone for understanding Ruiter's work is not Cartier-Bresson but Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre, particularly Daguerre's earliest surviving metal-plate, an 1837 still life of plaster casts. In this image, Daguerre photographs a corner of his studio that contains an array of still life objects: antique visual fragments. His arrangement includes a plaster relief of a nude Roman maiden and faun, two medieval cherubic busts, a sculpted rams' head, a basket-covered decanter, and a framed etching. These are all icons drawn from that stable of objects that Western civilization has certified as picturesque, objects that signify both {art} and {history.}

It seems clear that Daguerre's photographic construction--perhaps the world's first attempt at fabricating a table-top construction for the purpose of being photographed--was an attempt not only to ally this new invention with the "artistic" but to give it legitimacy not by indicating its potential for the contemporaneous, but rather by indicating its ability to seize within the current moment the aura of the past. This was not, as Oliver Wendell Holmes was to baptize the Daguerreotype, a "mirror with a memory," but rather a "memory in a mirror." Daguerre references history and the status of the artistic by setting forth a series of fragmentary allusions to past images.
Ruiter's basic pictorial and ideational strategies parallel Daguerre's. His work brings together fragments of past and present. The photographic components of Ruiter's work speak insistently of the contemporary, the immediate, and the real, but his assemblage of classical fragments—reproductions of earlier media--painting, sculpture, fabric, and statuary--speak resolutely of the past. But where Daguerre is interested in pointing to the legitimacy of the past and forging the strongest possible link between his newly discovered process and ancient forms and process, Ruiter is more interested in borrowing classic images to offer ironic commentary on the present.

Just as Daguerre sets up on his windowsill fragments of a glorious European past so Ruiter, traveling in America, constructs in this new landscape, fragments, memories and references to high European culture. In Ruiter's series {Cathedrals in the Desert,} the great religious architectural icons of Europe are reconstructed in the desert of Southern California in the manner of a flat Hollywood set or an American highway billboard. Here, in a transformation both beautiful and mocking, these buildings are given a new American skin. The stones and mortar of the European facades are replaced with more indigenous American products.The Arch of Titus is covered with 2500 red foil packets of Heinz Ketchup a more fitting reference for Americans who are much more adept at identifying the arches of a hamburger chain than the golden arches of the Arch of Titus. The DOM of Milan of is covered with fake pink fur, while stone facade of Santa Trinita is replaced with 48 ounce T-Bone steaks.
These substitutions reinvent European icons of high culture and history as banal American kitsch: monuments that are, for most Americans, simultaneously incomprehensible references to a history and a culture forever lost in the new world at the same time they are clearly understandable suggestions of a commodification and marketing mentality central to the contemporary American socio-cultural psyche. Yet, miraculously, in Ruiter's hands these ironic new objects remain sensual and beautiful. These reconstructions have not been built on just any American site, rather they are reconstructed at America's most sacred place, the high desert of the mythic West. Desert light and space provide an archetypal American site. The beauty of the 2500 Heinz Ketchup foil packets shimmering in the desert sun is both subversive and actual. Here sacrilege is transformed into an homage to American commerce at the same time it mockingly tells of the distance between America and its European roots.

There is another mysterious and unaccountable point of correspondence between Ruiter's Cathedrals in the Desert and the work of his European ancestor. Daguerre worked first as a painter in the high romantic style and then as the painter and engineer of the Diorama, an illusionistic theater with amazingly realistic changing light effects. Daguerre's subjects, both in his painting and in the Diorama, were frequently the ruined facades of European churches, chapels, an abbeys. The facades of these silhouetted Gothic ruins were subtly transformed by Daguerre by controlling the light from skylights and windows. Ruiter transforms his facades both with hot desert light and with the not so subtle imposition of peculiar American commodities. Ruiter's Cathedrals in the Desert continues Daguerre's romantic notion of positing the ruined cathedral as vehicle and metaphor for the intersection of history and modernity. In both Daguerre's and Ruiter's work, architectural power and utility resides not in a fully structured building, but in the use of the building's disembodied facade as icon: the exterior architectonic geometry of Ruiter's and Daguerre's churches become the objectification of history and hold the aura of Europe's high religions. Their geometry is merely a metaphor by which the past is projected upon the present. The viewer's relationship to these reconstructions is not as an actual inhabitant but as a voyeur, a spectator at the symbolic resurrection of the past within the contemporary world. For Daguerre these reminiscences of history existed in the shadowy light of a darkened theater or gallery. Jean Ruiter's cathedrals decompose in the harsh, unflinching light of the American desert.

One of Jean Ruiter's most persuasive strategies for interweaving moments of time is the use of multiple framing. In his work the continuous flat surface of the photograph is frequently interrupted with either a cutout that leads through to another image or by an object or framed image that is superimposed above the primary image. These dimensional impositions challenge our usual experience of viewing photographs as seamless replications of reality and force us to experience the image in a space which is both dimensional and changes in time. At times this variable space is further extended through the use of mirrors. The world of his images is always once removed from the evidentiary world we postulate as {real, true,} and {photographic.}

There is one more important point of correspondence to note between Daguerre's photograph and Jean Ruiter's: the topology of desire. While Daguerre never titled this image, it has been variously designated by later commentators; Beumont Newhall calls it "The Artist's Studio." Naomi Rosenblum refers to it as "Still Life." Each is of course an accurate reference to the domains of culture in which the objects reside and underscores their cliche subject matter. Yet a closer reading of Daguerre's photograph indicates that the fragments point to orgiastic desire; its essential discourse is about sexuality rather than art, or at very least about the domain of sexuality in the arts. Each object in the photograph refers to one aspect of Dionysian revelry. The nude nymph and faun are partaking in a revelry so intense that the vessel of wine spills upon the ground. Here the cherubs become cupids of erotic love, the rams head the symbol of sexual dominance and licentiousness, the basket covered bottle holds wine for the Bacchanalia, and the barely readable etching depicts a couple in a lovers' embrace. While these devices may be merely tropes that for the Parisian of early-nineteenth century simply pointed to the artifice of romantic art, they also reference--albeit in a rather dour way--art as a discourse on sexuality, the sensual life, and desire.

In a related manner, photography allows Ruiter to examine the discrepancies between attainability and desire, between classic, even religious idealizations of the body and human passion and their photographic reality. Where Daguerre's references to sexuality reside specifically within the classic estate of the gods, myth and history, Ruiter intermixes allusions to antique deities and the elegance of classical depictions of the body with snapshots, pornography, and advertising images. And, while Daguerre's quiet discussion of sexuality takes place in a hidden, scruffy corner, Ruiter examines the sexual with deliberate flourish and exuberance, allowing the imposition of historical European icons to provide wry and witty commentary on the present.

‘Hermaphrodite’ from the serie ‘Terra Cultura’ is a both a photographic and a sculptural meditation on sexual encounter, the perfection of the body, the binary possibilities of gender definition, and the imposition of classic definitions upon contemporary sexual culture. These themes are revisited from a specifically heterosexual male's point of view in the series {Women Sacrificed and Desired} where stereotypic images associated with classic, feminine sexual representation are re-framed, cut into, or overlaid with pictorial icons drawn from high moments of European religious and secular painting. In one photo-work between a women's legs we discover the Tower of Babel. In another, a pose calculated for sexual display is blessed by the Virgin Mary who drops a halo over a woman's buttocks.

Ruiter's series, {Charcoals,} focuses on the tension between media past and media present. Ruiter, with great wit, constructs his new images not out of charcoal drawings but out of physical charcoal, itself. Here, photography is relegated to being merely the matrix which carries the information. The implications seem clear: his mixing of voices, genres, and aesthetic codes challenges our notions of photographic clarity and truthfulness at the same time it ironically equates the transparency and neutrality of photography with the opacity and idiosyncrasy of an earlier media. More than this, Ruiter's deconstruction parallels Daguerre's reliance on earlier media to provide meaning and legitimacy for photography. With {Charcoals,} Ruiter's work has come full circle and returns to the pre-photographic. Daguerre spent years attempting to "fix the shadow" thrown by an optical lens only to discover that his aesthetics, his rhetoric, and his subjects were not at all {photographic.} Ruiter, with {Charcoals,} also ostensibly dismisses photography. But he does so by framing it as an ideational discourse that relies very little on media and exists almost entirely as history.

The Photoworks of Jean Ruiter by Jonathan Green, Previous Director UCR/California Museum of Photography
Jean Ruiter Photoworks by Drs. Dorothé Kurvers
Introduction by Cees Straus
Jean Ruiter Photoworks by Adriaan Monshouwer, consultant on Photography
The works of Jean Ruiter by Edward W. Earle, Curator, Collections, International Center of Photography, New York
The works of Jean Ruiter by Robbert Roos (Dutch)
Het is een luxe om altijd te kunnen reizen by Nell Westerlaken (Dutch)
Imaginary Journeys Appendix by Jean Ruiter, Jonathan Green, Adriaan Monshauer and drs.Mirjam Westbroek
The Imaginary Journeys by Jean Ruiter
The Emotional Mathematics by Jean Ruiter
Chaos and Order by Jörg Zimmermann, Germany
It is tricky to understand but "ce n´est pas une pipe" by Jörg Zimmermann
The Tokyo Blind Paths by Jean Ruiter
Single Works 2000-2001, Desperate SuicideTeen by Dorothé Kurvers
The New American Landscapes by Jeroen Hendriks
Pollymer Constructions by Jean Ruiter
The Kyoto Zen Gardens by drs. Marcel Feil, curator at Foam, fotografiemuseum Amsterdam
Newspaper Series by Jean Ruiter
Walking the silent Path by Jean Ruiter
Dante Revisited by Drs. Josien in ‘t Hof (in Dutch)
Minds of Consciousness by drs. Marcel Feil, curator at Foam, fotografiemuseum Amsterdam (in Dutch)
The Nudes of Hattonville by Dorothé Kurvers
Jean Ruiter: A Multifaceted Explorer by Merel Ligtelijn (Dutch)
The Transparent Truth by Cees Straus
Visual Ersatz (Charcoals) by A.D. Coleman, Photography critic, New York
Jean Ruiter's "Corpus Constructed" by A. D. Coleman, Photography critic, New York
Cathedrals in the Desert by Edward Earle, Curator, Collections, International Center of Photography, New York
Cathedrals in the Desert by Jonathan Green, Previous Director UCR/California Museum of Photography
Urban Opera by Cees Straus (in Dutch)
Maya and Aztecs by Dr. Reinhold Miszelbeck
Terra Cultura by Robert Lunsingh Scheurleer
Jean Ruiter PhotoWorks Japan by Herman Hoeneveld