To clear up some things about Aaron Ruell: First, despite how Google Instant searches often yield “dead” or “death” after typing his name, Ruell is alive and well. Second, although many know him from his role as Kip, the mumbly computer nerd with a voluptuous chat-room girlfriend named LaFawnduh in the cult comedy Napoleon Dynamite, his turn as an actor was a bit of a fluke. Ruell had worked for many years before the film as a director and photographer, and he currently works a commercial director and occasional print advertisement photographer — most recently responsible for the Old Spice campaign featuring Baltimore Ravens player Ray Lewis — based in Los Angeles. He’s been lauded for his vivid photographic portraits, which have been featured in a monograph of his work called Some Photos, in group shows in Los Angeles and Argentina, and in solo exhibitions in France and Italy. The images, often featuring straightforward shots of human and inanimate subjects set against rich, meticulously constructed scenery, evoke the nostalgic kitschiness of American suburbia. He opens his first U.S. solo exhibition at Martine Chaisson Gallery this Saturday, and he talked to Gambit about his inspiration, balancing commercial and fine art work, the aftermath of Napoleon Dynamite, and Internet death rumors.
This is your first solo photography show in the U.S. How did you end up choosing New Orleans for this?
Martine (Chaisson, gallery owner) just kind of reached out to me, actually. I had just done a show in Paris at the end of last year and was interested in doing a show stateside. I had never been to New Orleans before and I checked out her space — I really liked the space — and decided to go for it.
You do a lot of shows abroad. When I look at your work, I see a lot of Americana influences. How do other countries respond to that aspect of your work?
It’s interesting. They respond differently. I think the most recent was in Paris, and they respond not so much to the Americana pieces, I guess you could say, but more to the kind of find art work. I have this tea cup series, and they were really into the series, which is just really graphic and simple color-contrast type imagery. So it’s interesting, because every country I’m in responds differently. In Italy, it was the same thing; they responded completely different. They really responded to some of the quiet portrait work that I do. That’s always kind of interesting. It’ll be neat to see how people respond, especially here down South … I guess we’ll see.
A lot of your work depicts some suburbia imagery. Is your work inspired by your childhood?
That’s definitely part of it. I grew up in a small town out in the country, grew up working on a horse ranch. But I was in a weird area, because three hours north of me was San Francisco, and three hours south was Los Angeles. So as soon as any of us had drivers licenses, we’d just take off on a trips every other weekends to one of those big cities. So you get this kind of dash of culture over the weekend, and we’d come back home to the country. It was a weird mix, but it was perfect for me because I loved both equally. I think some of my work is inspired by that type of upbringing. There’s a certain kind of — I often use the word “quiet” when describing my work, and I think that comes from growing up out in the country. I’m also really drawn to pieces of design, whether it’s furniture or artwork — it can be anything from sculpture to clocks. I kind of look also at those items as subjects. It’s not always a face for me; it can be a piece of furniture that can pose as the centerpiece. It doesn’t have to be a model necessarily. I think that shows in my work. We were just talking about the tea cups: the tea cups become the focal point. I almost kind of use humans as props in pieces anyway; it’s never like they’re doing anything overly exaggerated. They’re just kind of filling that void within the frame.
Many of your photos are quiet but feature some elaborate scenery. Does that come from being a director?
Yeah, most of my work is shot on sets that I build, and that comes from having worked in film and knowing what the possibilities are there. My ideas usually come in the form of a single piece of whatever that image is — if it’s a face, or piece of artwork — then I kind of build out from there. The beauty of having production designers at my disposal is those things I imagine we can actually build. We don’t have to location scout and cross my fingers that something looks like what I see in my head; we just go and build it. A lot of my work is built from the ground up and shot on stages, but meant to look really authentic. About the other half of my work, the more kind of still-life stuff, is found.
Where do you find the human subjects for your portraits?
Everyone from friends to casting. I’ll cast a lot of my subjects. I’ll just look through hundreds of files of people’s headshots and find one that fits. But typically, it’s a face that I’ve seen before, and that face kind of comes back to me later with some random idea and it fits within whatever kind of environment I’m creating. So it’s one of those two ways, casting or people that I know.
What kinds of pieces will you be showing in your New Orleans show?
There’s a couple of pieces from the tea cup series, and there’s new pieces I haven’t shown from this other series called the Madonna series. There’s a place in California called the Madonna Inn that has like, 120 rooms and they’re all themed differently, in a really bizarre, but tasteful — it’s not like a gross, tacky place. And I’ve got this goal to shoot all the rooms. So at the beginning of this series I’m showing a couple of pieces from that. And then there’s just kind of a mish-mash of my monograph, my book, that was published a couple years ago. There’s a good mix, a good range of my portrait work and just kind of still life environment stuff.
You do a lot of commercial work, as well. What is it like transitioning from commercial to more artistic projects?
It’s tricky. It can be tricky. I tend not to do a whole lot of ad campaigns in the print world. I limit myself to maybe four a year, because I always have felt that that medium of photography is where I go to kind of have that creative outlet. Because my day job is really as a commercial director — I direct a lot of commercials. The fine art stuff is my outlet, because my day job is one where I’m always creatively compromised because I’m dealing with agencies and clients who want certain things, and I don’t have complete creative control in those instances. Photography, on the other hand, is something where I start it and finish it how I want. For me to then do ad work within that medium, I’m not all that interested. So I only do about four a year, and the creative has to be something that falls in line with what I would want to do, and the Old Spice stuff does that. The creatives that I worked with at Old Spice are really funny, really willing to try quirky things, and it works. It fits. But it can be tricky, but I feel like I found a way to … — I guess let me say this, when an ad agency comes to me to shoot print campaigns, they know exactly what they’re going to get, because I’m not willing to kind of tweak my style for an ad campaign in the print medium.
Besides your commercial work, are you still doing any film acting or directing?
I don’t do any acting. I’ve never fancied myself as an actor. The films that I’ve been in, I just did it to help friends out that had written or directed the films and they needed somebody, so they asked me if I’d do it and I did. But I don’t particularly like being on that side of the camera. And then the directing side, I’ve always got stuff in the works. I’m hoping to finally get my first feature going, probably in the next year shot. But I’m definitely always working on directing, and the commercial stuff, I’m constantly shooting spots.
Do you work for an agency or are you independent?
I’m repped at a production company called Biscuit, and that’s how commercial companies work — they have a roster of anywhere between five and 35 directors, and then scripts are sent to you and you decide if you want to shoot them or not.
There’s some death rumors about you on the Internet. Where do you think that came from? Were you in an accident or anything?
No, no it’s just a random … what happened was after Napoleon Dynamite came out, there was a rumor that Jon Heder, who played Napoleon, that he had died. That lasted about two weeks, then there was another rumor started that I had died. And so it was just a really random kind of strange Internet rumor that went around. It lasted about, I don’t know, a year. I probably got calls for 12 months for people who I hadn’t spoken to in a long time who found that online and were concerned.
I guess that means you have some cult status if death rumors are going around about you.
(laughs) Yeah, I guess so, I guess so.
I don’t know how often you’re recognized from Napoleon Dynamite, but has that affected your career? Does it annoy you?
You know, it’s really interesting because when the film first came out, like I said, I never planned on being an actor. I didn’t want to be an actor. At the time I was directing, just started a commercial career, I had short films getting ready to shoot, and those same short films I went to Sundance with the next year. And what bummed me out was, after Napoleon happened, I would have these films come out that I had written and directed, people would always like, when interviews were done, the title of the interview would be something to the effect of “Actor Aaron Ruell tries his hand at directing” or “Actor Aaron Ruell tries his hand at photography” or something, but in reality, I had been doing both of these things since I was a kid — the acting thing was a fluke. So the first year or so, I had to prove myself more than I would have, because people were looking at me as like, you know, that this was a hobby I was pursuing. So the first year it kind of bugged me, but now it’s like, I’m totally happy with people talking about Napoleon Dynamite, recognizing me from it — which doesn’t happen all that frequently. It may happen a couple times a year now, just because I don’t look much like that character — thankfully — and the film’s kind of subsided in its popularity. It’s just the hardcore fans that notice me now. So to answer, it doesn’t bug me anymore, but there was a while when it first came out where it was kind of, I don’t know, it rubbed me a little bit funny, I guess. But that’s the past, for sure, I feel like I’ve proven myself in the other things I do. Especially with having not pursued the acting like I could have. After Napoleon came out, I had a ton of offers to do similar type of roles where nerdy guy turns cool or nerdy guy gets the girl and you know, bigger Hollywood projects, and I guess that’s just not appealing to me at all. It wasn’t what I was interested in. And I think that also kind of helped proved my credibility in the other mediums I was working in, photography and directing.
I saw your name attached to an upcoming Napoleon Dynamite animated series. Will you be voicing Kip for that?
Yeah, totally. It’s gonna be on Fox Sunday nights and I think it starts up January of 2012. The original cast is all back voicing their characters from the film, and we actually just wrapped the first season. The first season’s done, and we all went back and recorded the voices. It was a cool experience. I hadn’t seen a lot of those guys in a few years, and it was good fun to get back into that world. I think the animated series will be good for fans of the film, and maybe good for those who weren’t fans of the film because now it’s a different genre. But yeah, it was good fun.
Ruell's show will be on display at Martine Chaisson Gallery (727 Camp St., 302-7942; www.martinechaissongallery.com) from May 7-June 1. The gallery hosts an opening reception for the artist 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday.
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