When an Artist-Couple Conceives a Joint Exhibition

Julie Torres and Ellen Letcher are cheerleaders of the Hudson Valley, a growing art scene that flowers with galleries, artist-run spaces, and established and newly opened contemporary museums and university galleries. Veterans of the Brooklyn art scene, they moved to Hudson, New York, in 2016. Two years later, they became co-directors of LABspace in Hillsdale, a space founded by artist Susan Jennings in 2014. Now, the couple has a two-person exhibition at Pocket Utopia Gallery, which is run by artist Austin Thomas. 

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 at the now-defunct English Kills Art Gallery, where she exhibited her collage-based work along with other locals. In 2009, she 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 distills the world into planes invigorated by colorful juxtapositions that often leave parts of her surface untouched. Her connection with Pocket Utopia, which was formerly based in Bushwick, is deep — she held her first solo exhibition at their space in 2012. 

Her partner Torres, on the other hand, tends to blend and mix color and form freely, sometimes creating caked objects that are neither sculptures nor paintings, and embrace their awkwardness by sitting in unusual, attention-demanding positions. 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 is 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 exhibition, they celebrate that coming-together. I recognize an aesthetical and ideological blend to their ideas that retains 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.”

My first encounter with Torres was in the summer of 2010, at Storefront BK gallery in Bushwick, when she approached me timidly to chat. That July, she told me, Torres was cooped up in her apartment off Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg.  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. On July 17 at 2pm, she was approached by plainclothes police officers who pulled up in an unmarked car, asked for her home address, and confiscated her art materials, before taking her down to the police station. 

“I was arrested for graffiti,” she told me in an interview weeks after the incident. “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 held in detention for 23 hours before being released. She later sued the city for wrongful arrest, and won. Charges against her were dismissed, and authorities eventually returned her damaged painting, which they’d crumpled up and stuffed in a plastic bag. After the dust settled, Torres donated a watercolor to Hyperallergic as a thank-you for our reporting — later picked up by Gothamist, L Magazine, and 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 me of how fearless Torres can be. While others may be intimidated into silence by such an encounter, Torres spoke up for the rights of artists to work in public. She rejected the police’s allegation that she was causing a nuisance or damaging property, and spoke her truth. The power of her voice and advocacy also feels central to her art and curatorial work, as she champions the rights of other artists to speak forcefully to their communities and with each other. That power is also evident at the Pocket Utopia show. 

The exhibition, titled I just want to stay here for awhile, is particularly meaningful for Torres, who helped Thomas find the gallery space. I asked Thomas about that 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.” 

To Thomas, this show feels like the culmination of a long-running artistic conversation. “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] an artist-run curatorial project producing exhibitions, publications, performances, 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. And it kind of 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.

I find their energy together contagious, and the ping-ponging of ideas is as clear in their conversations as it is in the work itself. I also see the power of love 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 her feelings about being in the city again and showing work after so much time upstate are conflicted. Torres is more straightforward and fearless: 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 mostly on paper, but now wooden panels dominate. I asked her 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 a lot of artists who stretch their canvases and gesso them and sand them down and they get the surface just right for their work. 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 that. I guess. I feel lazy about it, but I like that much better,” she says with a small grin.

The show, running through January 28, is an opportunity to see how two artists negotiate their work and live in the space of a relationship that spreads past the personal to embrace a community of artists and ideas. The fact that each work is available for $500 each also underscores the couple’s interest in creating affordable art. My own small Torres sculptural painting sits on a work table at home, demanding my attention through its neon colors and curious organic shapes, often inspiring new ideas through its clumpy marvellousness.

“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.

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