STUDIO VISIT: ELLEN LETCHER
New York (or rather Ridgewood/Bushwick based) artist Ellen Letcher recently opened her solo exhibition at Pocket Utopia – “Photo Still” (taken from the title of a poem by Jennifer Fumiko Cahill’s The Fox Bride). RIOT OF PERFUME talked to Letcher on collages, Bushwick art and influences:
RIOT OF PERFUME: What is your background? When did you start making art?
Ellen Letcher: I was born in Ohio but grew up in Baltimore, where we moved when I was five. I studied in Florida and briefly moved to New York right out of college when my father died suddenly of a heart attack about a month into my being in the city. My mother asked me to move home to sort out his print shop.
I had grown up working in his print shop; I started in the fourth grade cleaning the bathrooms and then eventually became the head graphic designer. Working in the printing business provided access to materials and supplies that I could use in my work. My favorite tool was the photocopier, which I used to create images and multiples to use in my collages.
Returning back to the shop where I grew up and my father had dropped dead on the floor was pretty rough, but it led me to spend many hours alone there, playing around with those photocopied images, pasting them on boards, working with them on all sorts of surfaces. I used anything I could get my hands on: cardboard from large ad film packages, mirrors, panels. I’m currently working on panels and a large four by 15 feet drop cloth.
We ended up closing the business. I got to keep one of the copiers and I moved it into to the basement of my parents’ home and this is where I would set up my studio for the next three years. This is also where I would start my first real collage series using paint as adhesive. Towards the end of these three years I got a call from an old friend from school who asked me to do the still photography for his first film. We spent the next three months shooting around the city. During this time I was able to land a job at Elle and George magazines, which meant I could finally come back to NYC.
Letcher: One of the first galleries here in Bushwick, Austin Thomas’s Pocket Utopia, was coming to an end after a two-year run. It was created as a social project—gallery as a sketchbook. At its end is when my friend Kevin Regan approached me and suggested we keep the torch going and open Famous Accountants in the same vein: gallery as a sketch book. Kevin was one of my first friends when I moved to NY so we our work had already had a long dialogue. The interplay at Famous Accountants and the pasties, i.e. skulls, was more formal collaboration, or at least as formal as we can be.
There was also a strange serendipity in finding the space since the previous owners had built it with the hopes that it would one day be a gallery. The space belonged to Lady Jaye and Genesis Breyer P-Orridge, but Lady Jaye died before their dream could be realized. I had originally taken on the space as my studio but it would become Famous Accountants with my studio tucked to the side. They both left an intense energy in the space and when I first moved in when it was just my basement studio, the air was electric. I was almost a little afraid of the energy it was so intense. But my neighbor Jessica, who is a close friend of Genesis’s, assured me there would be a positive, good energy, and it was. Kevin and I would later joke that Lady Jaye was our dominatrix and we her slaves and that she was telling us what to do from another dimension (which still doesn’t seem so far fetched…). I came to find out later from Genesis that Lady Jaye died in the bathroom of their apartment, which is where my girlfriend and I ended up moving. Incidentally it’s my girlfriend’s favorite room in the apartment. Again, we assumed it must be Jaye’s always-looming pool of energy. There is still a large psychic energy that holds the space.
RIOT OF PERFUME: How involved are you with curating versus producing art? How different it is to you?
Letcher: Until Famous Accountants, I was strictly producing art for the most part. Someone has once suggested that my collages (if you in fact call them collages) are something of a curation of the page, I also tend to approach all things as “art projects.” For me, curating at Famous Accountants is an art process in and of its own. We also had a lot of guest curators, which I think keeps the whole experience fresh. It opened up a platform for lots of different people to participate and bring their unique energy and voice into the mix.
RIOT OF PERFUME: Can you tell us about your collage series? Particularly your use of paint as a form of adhesive, non-art materials, and the mixing of religious and fashion imagery.
Letcher: I started to work on them over a decade ago. I’ll start a series, leave it alone, then switch to photography or to printmaking, then back to my collage series to keep things fresh. I started making collage in college but I don’t think the idea of using paint as an adhesive really came together until later when I had my studio in the basement in Baltimore, which is where I spent a great deal of my time when I was staying with my mother for those three years. I was working a handful of part time jobs so I had a lot of time each day to spend in the studio. Once I discovered using paint as adhesive, I embarked upon an ongoing obsession to see how many directions I could/can take it, or take the viewer somewhere new.
[To address the imagery question], I have always been obsessed with religious iconography. I was raised Catholic and the only way I could deal with sitting still through church was by looking at all the sculptures of the stations of the cross that hung around the church and making up stories about them in my head. I also had a born-again Christian grandmother and she would take me to her church, Assembly of God, where people would speak in tongues. I was in grade school so this really freaked me out—I mean they were really into it, it was full possession or something. This intense spirituality would stay with me even if it did not played out in the way of being a born-again Christian or even Catholic for that matter. I was also born on my grandmother’s birthday so I was the favorite and she really wanted us to share going to church together, watching all these old biblical movies—the parting of the red sea—all of it. Her passion for this scared me and intrigued me at the same time: this belief she had for something that could not be shattered by anyone.
As for fashion imagery: After getting the job at Elle and George, I ended up staying at the company for the next 13 years working basically on all of their publications. Fashion, naturally, crept into all of my work. Dealing with all the layouts and making the physical dummy of the books definitely impacted the way I looked at things and how I approached my work.
On a side note, I believe fashion can be religious in it own right. The ceremony of getting dressed, what you’re projecting or withholding, these things are all at play.
RIOT OF PERFUME: In some ways your work seems to be influenced by Rauschenberg’s “Combines,” especially when he talks about “the generosity of finding surprises” in the work of art. Was he an influence?
Letcher: I was not thinking about Rauschenberg while working but, looking back and thinking of the first time I saw his “Bed” piece, I think it did have an impact on me. I was probably in high school the first time I saw it and something there struck a cord with me. The materials he used, knowing that was a blanket from his bed—I wanted to take it home and just stare at it. One of my favorite parts of making art is this element of surprise when something emerges out of the work, the generosity of finding surprises. Oh, and of course all his “Combines”. I like to make combined humans. I just finished a piece with twins boys that yielded an eagle when I was done, which was a total and welcome surprise.
RIOT OF PERFUME: Which other artists have influenced your work?
Letcher: This is a hard one…so many. The Surrealists, Raymond Pettibon, Gertrude Stein, Alexander McQueen, Frida Kahlo, Ben Godward, Austin Thomas, Harry Houdini, William S. Burroughs, Lee Krasner, Matisse, Kurt Schwitters, Jean Paul Gaultier, Kurt Cobain, Valie Export, J.G. Ballard. Poets—especially Jennifer Fumiko Cahill and Jason Marak. And also, all the innocents, such as Henry Darger
RIOT OF PERFUME: What projects are you working on now?
Letcher: I’m working on my first solo show called Photo Still that opens this June at the new Pocket Utopia that just reopened on the Lower East Side run by Austin Thomas and Armin Kunz. Austin wants to deepen the conversation that was started at Pocket Utopia in Bushwick. Pocket Utopia, along with Jason Andrew’s Norte Maar, really brought together the whole Bushwick community.
RIOT OF PERFUME: What have you seen recently in music/film/arts/performance that has impressed you? Anything in the neighborhood of Ridgewood/Bushwick?
Letcher: I just saw Calypso, a literary performance at the Bushwick Starr by Paul Rome and Roarke Menzies, and it was amazing. It was read in the style of straight-up old-time storytelling but the story mixed together very different time periods, with two readers taking turns at the same story told two different ways. It held my attention for hours which is a great feat. Also, there is a show of Kristin Jensen’s work currently at Norte Maar. English Kills Gallery is also one of my Bushwick neighborhood favorites. Andrew Ohanesian and Tescia Seufferlein’s Blind Spot is the first show I saw there and it is maybe the best show I have seen in New York. They recreated an entire house within the gallery, which you could enter and walk around; it was the strangest, most visceral experience I have ever had in reaction to a show. When you do you find the back half of the house, it has exploded. You couldn’t tell where the show began and where it ended. It transformed the entire gallery, it was unrecognizable…just the way I like it.
front page: “Sidewalk”, top:”Biker” by Ellen Letcher. Studio photographs by Katarína Hybenová.
“Photo Still” a solo exhibition by Ellen Letcher is at Pocket Utopia from June 9th to July 15th, 2012.