When a Couple of Artists Conceives a Joint Exhibit
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Ellen Letcher and Julie Torres have become the cheerleaders of a growing art community in the Hudson Valley. This area is home to established and newly opened museums, galleries and artist-run space, as well as established and newly open contemporary galleries and university galleries. Veterans of the Brooklyn art scene, they moved to Hudson, New York, in 2016. Two years later they became codirectors of LABspaceIn Hillsdale, a place founded by artist Susan Jennings. Now, the couple is exhibiting as a pair at Pocket Utopia GalleryAustin Thomas is the artist behind.
I’ve known the two artists for more than a decade, watching their artistic practices develop in the fertile soil of Bushwick and other corners of north Brooklyn where artists settled. Letcher was a regular exhibitor at the now-defunct English Kills Art Gallery where she displayed her collage-based works with other locals. In 2009, Letcher opened Famous Accountants Gallery with artist Kevin Regan. At the time, the duo often explained the name of the gallery with a quip, which I’m paraphrasing: “Famous artists are like famous accountants; they’re mostly unknown to those outside of the field.”
Letcher was a fixture of the Bushwick art scene during the aughts and, later, the 2010s, and I sometimes found myself waiting for lines in bathrooms — I mean, in line for bathrooms — with her, chatting about life, art, and the world. Her work is a distillation of the world into planes, often enlivened by colorful juxtapositions. She leaves parts of her surface unfinished. Her connection with Pocket Utopia, which was formerly based in Bushwick, is deep — she held her first solo exhibition at their space in 2012.
Torres, meanwhile, prefers to mix and blend colors and forms freely, creating caked objects which are neither sculptures or paintings. Torres embraces the awkwardness of his work by sitting in unorthodox, attention-demanding poses. For this show, Torres exhibits more painting-like work that ends up complementing Letcher’s practice. Taken together, it’s clear that the two relish the spaces in between, moments of repose. In a conversation I had with the couple at Pocket Utopia, Letcher explained that interval as a “thinking space, a space of possibilities.”
Torres agreed, adding: “We never talked about it. It’s there. I think it’s something inherently [there] that I was drawn to in Ellen’s work that I have never articulated, and it’s something I look for in my own work. It’s like we both talk about our work as being a puzzle, and we both did that independently, before we knew each other. So part of a puzzle is that there’s going to be empty spaces.”
The desire to fit, negotiate, and accommodate appears to be central to the pair, who co-run a space where artists who don’t always fit into other venues find a community of like-minded creators. In their Lower East Side show, they celebrate the coming together. I can see a blend of aesthetics and ideologies in their ideas, while still retaining their individuality.
“What we said at the opening is: everything that’s collage is Ellen, and everything that’s just paint is me,” Torres explains. “But it’s so much deeper than that. One of the reasons I was initially drawn to Ellen’s work, 12 to 14 years ago, is because I see things in her work that relate to my work and to me and things that I’m interested in and curious about. So I actually think that we already had that underlying — ”
“— That tactileness of the paint,” Letcher jumps in to finish. “And just being really… I don’t know…”.
“Hands-on with the paint,” Torres adds. “Hands-on with… Yes, hands-on with the paint.”
Torres and I first met in the summer of 2010. Storefront BKWhen she approached me to chat, she was hesitant. She told me that in July, Torres had been cooped in her Williamsburg apartment, off Bedford Avenue. She was working bigger than usual — an art space she worked with had requested large-scale work — and she felt up to the challenge. Her small apartment wasn’t comfortable during the stifling heat of summer, so she took the work to a quiet nearby block. She was approached at 2pm on July 17 by plainclothes cops who pulled up in a car that wasn’t marked, asked her for her address and confiscated all her art supplies before taking her to the police station.
“I was arrested for graffiti,” she told me in an InterviewThe incident occurred weeks later. “I wasn’t doing graffiti, however, I was painting with watercolors on my own store-bought paper that I had taped to a temporary wall surrounding a construction site.”
The arrest resulted in a peculiar police report that outlined that “43 tubes of paint, 22 containers of foil paper, and 2 palettes from the defendant’s bag” were confiscated, though Torres said she didn’t have any foil. The report further explained that the police officer “observed [the] defendant painting shapes and rainbows on the boundary fence of a city-owned piece of plowed land.” Apparently, New York City is not Oz and rainbows are unwelcome.
Torres was detained for 23 hours, before being released. She sued the city and won for wrongful arrest. Charges against her dismissed, and authorities eventually returned her damaged painting, which they’d crumpled up and stuffed in a plastic bag. Torres, after the dust had settled, donated a watercolor. Hyperallergic as a thank-you for our reporting — later picked up by Gothamist, L Magazine, Gawker — and the colorful painting on paper still hangs in our podcast studio as a reminder of the importance journalism can have in the lives of artists.
This story also reminds how fearless Torres could be. Torres, who was not intimidated by the encounter, spoke out for the right of artists to work publicly. She rejected the police’s allegation that she was causing a nuisance or damaging property, and spoke her truth. Her voice and advocacy are also central to her curatorial and artistic work, as she advocates for other artists’ rights to speak out in their communities. This power is also evident in the Pocket Utopia exhibition.
The exhibition is entitled I want to stay for a while.Torres is especially grateful for Thomas, who was able to find the gallery. Thomas told me about his good fortune. “Yes, she did, in 2012. Off Craigslist, she scouted and had the first conversation with the building owner,” she told me over email. “There was a conversation right from the start regarding building relationships; Julie was a facilitator. This initial step influenced the development of Pocket Utopia as a space for co-creating, community building, and forming collaborations.”
Thomas describes this show as the culmination a long-running conversation about art. “I always wanted to do a floor-to-ceiling Julie Torres show and capture the exuberance and energy of her paintings. Ellen, I’ve shown twice, so it’s a long-standing commitment, my dedication to an artistic dialogue with her; together, it is a dynamic duo.” She puts the show in conversation with the gallery’s work writ large. “Their show has been a great way to relaunch Pocket Utopia to showcase artists and curators and how important it is to have a community … [we are]Artist-run curatorial projects produce exhibitions, publications and screenings. Moving forward, we’ll focus on artistic interventions, and this show of Julie and Ellen’s work is definitely an intervention, for they came in and curated and installed it, and then we brought the beer!”
At home in Upstate New York, Torres and Letcher have their studios right across the hall from each other, often wandering into each other’s work space while making work. “Constant visits,” Torres says, before the two start talking back and forth at a quick pace that gives you an idea of their fluid dialogues.
“Constant. “Constant” was funny. We usually don’t work that closely together, but we did, and it was really fun,” Letcher says.
“I think we helped each other a lot.”
“I’ve had her in, she’s standing over my stuff. She’s like, ‘I’m usually not this involved.’ I’m like, ‘Well, we gotta get going.’”
“We were definitely more involved with each other, way more than usual.”
“But we are pretty involved, but this was next level, I guess.”
“Yeah. But not actual outright collaborations, just a lot of input,” Torres concludes.
Their energy is contagious and their ideas are ping-ponging in their conversation as well as in their work. I also see love’s power here.
“We don’t make works that are meant or intended for each other, but we often make works that we give to each other, based on reactions [from the other person] or how they turn out, I would say,” Torres explains, when I ask if they ever make art for one another.
“I’ll leave little painted cards in her room,” Torres adds. “Ellen likes to write comments, ideas, phrases, and quotes that come to her in the studio, on note cards, and she’ll often leave those for me.” She stressed that they don’t make work to please one another. “I actually push against that, almost in a contrarian way.”
That dialogue is on display in the pair’s first exhibition — though it’s not always legible to outside eyes.
“Our work [in the exhibition] is intimate with each other, and there’s a lot about intimacy in the show and about our relationship,” Torres says. “But I think you’d have to really look for it. And I don’t know that everyone would pick up on any of it. I feel comfortable putting it all out there, because so many things are inside jokes between us, or secrets that nobody would ever put the pieces together.”
“Right. Well said. Yeah,” Letcher replied.
“Oh, thank you,” Torres says, with a warmth I find characterizes so much of their interactions.
Letcher admits that her feelings about returning to the city and showing work again after so much upstate time are conflicted. Torres, on the other hand, is more direct and brave: “I welcome it with open arms, but I also feel like I am more comfortable in vulnerability.”
Torres’s interest in that starkness and vulnerability also comes through in her painting surfaces. Her previous work was primarily on paper, but now wood panels dominate. I asked why she switched. “If I’m going to be completely truthful, a panel is something that doesn’t need to be prepared or stretched,” she explained. “I am naturally uninterested in the prepping of surfaces. I know many artists who stretch canvases, gesso and sand the surface to get it just right. And all of that makes me anxious and I can’t focus on any of it. So, I just like being able to pick up a ready-made surface that I can just work on.”
“So it kind of echoes your own ability to be vulnerable. It feels like you want it to be itself, and not packaged,” I offer.
“Oh, that’s interesting. I like it. I guess. I feel lazy about it, but I like that much better,” she says with a small grin.
The show, which runs until January 28, offers a chance to see how two artists navigate their work and live within a relationship that extends beyond the personal and embraces a community of ideas and artists. The fact that each work is available for $500 each also underscores the couple’s interest in creating affordable art. My small Torres sculptural work is on my home desk. Its neon colors and organic shapes grab my attention, often inspiring me with its clumpy wonder.
“It felt like everything led to this moment. Every show we’ve curated together or independently.” Torres said.
“It’s constantly building off of each other,” Letcher reaffirms.
“We also talked about how we put so much effort into curating other artists’ work, and if we would only ever turn that effort toward our own work, how great that would be. This is really the first time I feel like we’ve accomplished that,” Torres adds, with a quiet pride that comes from real accomplishment.