Review: Aaron Ruell

Aaron Ruell, Tea Party, 2008. Pigment print. Courtesy the artist and Martine Chaisson Gallery, New Orleans.

Aaron Ruell
Martine Chaisson Gallery
727 Camp Street
May 7—June 1, 2011

Aaron Ruell is a photographer with the soul of a filmmaker. Best known for his role as Kip in Napoleon Dynamite, Ruell's photographs reflect an actor's affinity for storytelling, offering a peek into his strange and playful imagination. With titles like Boy, Cabin, and Car, the photographer’s parsimonious use of language complements an economy of imagery that still manages to be rich with visual texture and surprises. One such surprise includes the repeated use of teacups, which don’t seem to provide any iconographic significance beyond Ruell’s own amusement, but they do aid in establishing an aesthetic sensibility. The careful selection of dated “props” lends the photographs a bygone familiarity of stylized film stills.

His meticulously crafted interior scenes give just enough information to start the narrative but are left open-ended enough to allow the viewer to bring in his or her own perspective. In Tea Party, 2008, a little girl sits primly on a pristine modernist couch alongside color-coordinated dolls and a tea set for two on the coffee table. The viewer can immediately imagine the events leading up to this scene and begin to conjure the rest of the story.

Ruell has also made a name for himself in the commercial world, directing the most recent Old Spice television campaign. Given his advertising background, it is unsurprising to learn that Ruell finds his sitters sifting through actors’ headshots. Not all the photographs, however, are the result of careful planning. Some arise from spontaneously found opportunities, such as Two Bikes, 2005. Looking at the brightly colored vintage bikes set against the vast background of a grey wall, it’s hard to believe that they are not also products of the photographer’s imagination, as they seem such natural members of his constructed family. With Ruell’s keen eye and attention to detail, the staged images form a contiguous relationship with the unplanned scenes. Ruell certainly recognizes his ilk when he sees it.

Aaron Ruell, Two Bikes, 2005. Pigment print. Courtesy the artist and Martine Chaisson Gallery, New Orleans.