Litmus Re-Test

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This past Friday I was out on my usual IDADA First Friday rounds, checking out the gallery scene and taking in the Harrison Center, Indie Indy Artists Colony and a few others. My first stop of the evening was Litmus Gallery, located in the Circle City Industrial Complex on the City's near eastside. 

Litmus, the brainchild of artist/photographer Todd Matus, is a space he can exhibit his own work. Ironically, I recently came across an old ad he ran in Arts Indiana magazine, a publication from the 1980s. It featured an image of his entitled Aunt Liz, an elderly woman formally composed and staring confidently back at the viewer, kinda quirky. (Think Diane Arbus.) It made an impression on me then, and some 25 years later it did again. The rediscovery of the image prodded me to delve a little deeper into the artist's story.

"Aunt Liz"
  • "Aunt Liz"

Matus has deep roots in the local art scene. He taught photography at Herron School of Art from 1985 to '88 and regularly exhibited at various local venues: 431 Gallery, InViv, the Indianapolis Art Center (formerly the Art League) and the IMA's Forefront Gallery in 1990. On this night Matus was showing a selection of what he called "the greatest hits" of large format, black and white landscape images -- works from his travels to Bulgaria in 1989. Not much larger than a walk-in closet, the photographs filled the intimate gallery space, displaying his talents for finely composed compositions; capturing the mood and essence of each location.

As it turns out, Litmus is something of an indulgence on Matus' part. His day gig, since leaving teaching in 1989, has been working as the president of Sofia Violins. It's a company that hand-crafts high-end commercial violins and is located here in Indianapolis in the Stutz Building. Knowing that many artists work either full- or part-time jobs, (often unrelated to their art), to support their art making, I asked him about the relationship (or lack of) between the two creative endeavors.

He said of the two disciplines, "For me, violin making is a craft -- a fascinating engineering process copying the masters, but it doesn't allow me to articulate my views of life. Photography is my refuge and an expression of me. It allows me to communicate my point of view."  When asked about the need to open a gallery instead of just showing at one of the local venues, he responded, "Litmus came about after a long absence from the local art scene. From 1997 to 2004 I didn't really show that much. It was with encouragement from family and friends that I opened it." Matus was clear that it's not about the money. "Up to this point, it's not even been a break-even proposition," he said. "In a way, the gallery is its own art form. It allows me to show my work, but also communicate and connect with the public and other artists in a way the occasional show doesn't."

In much the same manner that arresting image of Aunt Liz recently spoke to me after all these years, Litmus affords Matus the opportunity to connect with an entirely new generation of admirers through thoughtful and engaging monthly exhibitions.  

Having owned a gallery, I've always been intrigued by those who operate them. Aside from the time commitment, it's the whole public interaction component and willingness to open oneself to the general spotlight and scrutiny that I find most interesting. To hear Matus tell it, Litmus now provides him with a sense of belonging -- a definable link to the art community. From my perspective, he's been there all along; it just took me 25 years to make the connection.

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