— Drawing on the Utopic

Eleanor Ling on Ellen Letcher

It’s my first week working at the newly merged Hansel and Gretel Picture Garden Pocket Utopia here in Chelsea and I’m diving headfirst into the distorted, helter-skelter collages of Ellen Letcher’s current show Gaslight.  To give myself some context, I first delved into the background of the show’s title – that is, the 1944 mystery film of the same name, in which a man goes to extreme lengths to convince his new wife that her sanity is slipping away from her.  It is a chilling film, and in many ways creates a comparable atmosphere to that which is evoked by viewing Letcher’s eerie, juxtaposed images.  As the film progresses the villain uses a series of manipulative psychological tactics to destabilize the young woman’s grasp on reality, forcing her to doubt her own cognitive processes and believe that she is imagining things, like the noises in the attic and the dimming of the gas lamp in her bedroom.

As it turns out, the term “gas-lighting” derives from this very film, used in clinical studies to refer to a form of abuse in which the victim is systematically fed false information until they come to doubt their own thoughts and perceptions.  So what does this have to do with Ellen Letcher’s work?  Once a production designer for fashion magazines, Letcher composes her works using images torn straight from the veneer-coated pages in such publications as she used to help create.  Letcher, it seems, asks her viewers to be aware of the psychological manipulations that we all undergo at the hands of the media.  I was drawn to one piece in particular, a pseudo-diptych showing a rectangular image of a woman in a jeweled dress across from a space its equal in size and shape but with only a blank space contained within.

In a 2012 article for the Wall Street Journal, James Panero wrote of the artist’s process – “She [moves] her images around, leaving behind outlines where the pictures used to be.” It is this use of negative space that most intrigues me.  The headless woman in her dazzling dress is not the whole story; there is a deeper and more troubling space – a vacancy – left in its wake.  In the film, the tactics of the abusive husband rely on the ability to make his wife believe above all else that there is something deeply and inherently wrong with her.  Does not the fashion industry operate on precisely these principles?  Flipping through the pages of a magazine, we are intensely aware that we are not the woman in the sparkling dress, and furthermore that we now want to be.  We are shown flaws that we didn’t know we had, and are mindlessly driven to correct them.  Showing the public what they lack is the lifeblood of consumer media.

The trend in Letcher’s work of headless or otherwise fragmented women highlights the superficiality of the mass-produced image.  The woman in the sparkling dress is not real; she is a figment of our own imagination as introduced by the infringing ideologies of the image-maker.  The real woman is the blank space left behind after the image has left its impression on her.  One of the most chilling pieces in the collection has lost the original image altogether, although its outlines are still visible.  We do not lose the image when we close the pages of a magazine.  Its impact stays with us, shows us what we had not seen before, and makes us doubt our own sense of self.  Ellen asks us not to believe what we are told, and to recognize that we are all victims of “gas-lighting” at the hands of the media.

~Eleanor Ling