Artist Nicole Touchet made the decision months ago to relocate to New Orleans. An email the Lafayette native received in mid-March reinforced that decision:
You have to take down the nude pictures you have in your gallery. Part of the agreement to rent you the space was to not display nude pictures.
The email was signed by a project coordinator with Property One Inc., the company that manages Gordon Square, the historic hotel-turned-office complex at the Jefferson-Vermilion intersection in the heart of Downtown. The UL Lafayette alumna had opened her eponymous gallery, Gallerie Touchet, in a small side space facing Vermilion Street 11 months before, hosting exhibitions of up-and-coming local artists including her own work.
For the March 2016 ArtWalk, Touchet, who earned her BFA from UL in 2013, decided to hang a solo exhibition of her own work — abstract-nude self-portraits rendered beautifully in acrylic and pastel on canvas. She was in Arizona when the Property One rep emailed her about the paintings.
The 26-year-old Touchet calls the demand by the company a “slap in the face.” Her email response to the property coordinator underscores her outrage:
Well, they aren’t pictures -—they are paintings that are all works of mine. I was already planning on taking the show down when I return from my vacation on the 24th. Plus, I do not recall signing anything that stated that I couldn’t show any certain type of fine art in my gallery. I’m very insulted that you would send such an informal and rude email to notify me of this. I will be out of the building in less than a month, and I have paid my rent on time every single month. I don’t deserve such treatment.
“I don’t think that I was rude,” the company rep replies. “It is in your lease under item #5. Please read it. I am not an artist so, to me that is a picture of a nude woman and others in the building, plus the building owner are [sic] not comfortable with such a display. How long will you be away? Can we have the code so that someone can go in and cover up or take down the picture.”
“I’m sending someone to cover the paintings,” Touchet replies. “None of your staff is allowed to touch my work in any way.”
The artist’s mother and sisters went to the gallery that day, covered the paintings in newsprint and posted a sign on the front window — “Censured by Management.”
Here’s condition No. 5 on Touchet’s lease with Property One:
Lessee warrants and represents to Lessor that the Leased Premises exclusive of common area shall be continually used and occupied only for the purpose of general office use. Lessee shall conduct its business and control its agents, employees, invitees and visitors in such a manner as is lawful, reputable and will not cause any nuisance or otherwise interfere with, annoy or disturb any other tenant in its normal business operations or Lessor in its management of the Building. Lessee shall not commit or suffer to be committed, any waste on the Leased Premises, nor shall Lessee permit the Leased Premises to be used in any way which would, in the opinion of Lessor, be hazardous on account of fire or otherwise which would in any way increase or render void the fire insurance on the Leased Premises or Building.
So there you have it. Nothing about nudes, morality, pornography or community standards. We must therefore infer that Touchet’s nipples paintings were simply making the building’s owners hot, thereby increasing the fire hazard in Gordon Square.
Touchet tells The IND she’s been frustrated as an artist with Lafayette, her hometown, where she has long found it difficult to show her work. She has sold similar paintings in New Orleans, a cosmopolitan city without Lafayette’s embarrassingly provincial attitude toward fine art.
Touchet says the demand floored her, in large part because she assumed Lafayette had become urbane enough to countenance a few nipples in fine art. Her work is tasteful and artfully wrought and fits deeply within centuries of tradition in Western art.
“I’m the one paying all the bills for the space,” she adds. “I didn’t think [management] had that jurisdiction. I signed a clause in my lease about nothing crude, violent, pornographic. This work is not pornographic. Would you come out, look at these paintings and say this is completely out of line, inappropriate in any way? I would never show any work of mine or anyone else’s that would be anywhere close to [pornography], so it was a slap in the face to my morals and my values, basically.”
Recall former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft’s demand back in 2002 that partially nude classical statues at the Justice Department be covered with drapes when he held press conferences. This is of a kind, and Touchet says she and friends are planning a “Free the Nipple” demonstration on the streets of Downtown later this month. Stay tuned for that.
The artist is moving her paintings out of the space today; her lease expired Thursday. But she remains outraged by Property One’s prudish demand that the nudes be covered.
“When somebody tells you your baby is ugly and that you need to cover it, put your baby out of the public eye — that’s all it was,” she says with a sigh of resignation. “It was very initially frustrating. It angered me. But, after the fact, it’s just ignorance, after everything is said and done.”
In the meantime, Lafayette, let’s keep telling ourselves we’re a “Cool Town.”