LOS ANGELES TIMES
Thursday May 12, 2005
Off the floor, onto the walls
* With humble linoleum, block print artist Dave Lefner preserves iconic images from
In the few hours before twilight, you can find Dave Lefner driving slowly through
Scouting and photographing is just the beginning. Lefner then returns to his 2,000-square-foot loft at the Brewery, a massive complex of live-work artist spaces in downtown
"We're a dying craft," Duardo says. "Reductive printmaking is a time consuming, tedious process. In this day and age, people don't have that much patience. Artists turn instead to large-format printers, which are glorified Xerox machines. That's why when I see somebody that has mastered this craft, I'm flabbergasted. Lefner has gone beyond being a master printmaker. He's hands down the best linocut printmaker on the West Coast."
The process is mind-numbingly complex, but on a recent afternoon Lefner laughs and chats his way through a printing and makes it look easy.
"I start with a photo of a sign," he explains. "First of all, I look at the shadows." He copies the image by hand onto a piece of paper, then completes a charcoal tracing and flips it over. He rubs the backward image onto a gray slab of linoleum -- yep, the same stuff used as flooring -- and sprays its surface with fixative. He's ready to carve.
Using just two basic knife tools, one with a blade shaped like a V, the other like a U, Lefner slices away the linoleum, discarding pieces into boxes filled with thousands of cuttings. "The first thing I do is incorporate the white of the paper showing through somewhere," he says as he cuts. "I carve those areas away off the block."
When the first carving is finished, he mixes thick oil-based inks until he finds the right hue, which he rolls across the linoleum. Ink blankets the areas that haven't been carved out, and when Lefner hand-cranks the slab through a press standing a few feet away, ambiguous shapes appear on the heavy, cream-colored paper beneath. He prints the edition, rarely numbering more than five, and then the process repeats, each new layer superimposing upon the last, the image becoming clearer with each go-through. There's no room for error; instead of using a fresh piece of linoleum for each printing, Lefner gauges away at the same block.
After five to eight layers of color and two days of drying between each, he steps back to reveal stunningly detailed portraits of the Los Angeles that most of us forget to appreciate -- classic movie marquees, midcentury motor lodge signs, ornate liquor and drugstore facades that are faded, yellowed, marked by time.
People rarely understand the process at first glance, Lefner says. The prints are so realistic-looking that passersby typically assume either some type of photography, or the kind of mass-produced wizardry that pervades the printmaking world. But eyes widen as Lefner explains the laborious process, and this is part of his intent: to reengage the public's dwindling interest in this art by portraying the artist as imbued with the kind of physical know-how, patience and elbow grease that conceptual art and technology have rendered unnecessary.
"There was a day when the artist was revered as a craftsman," says Lefner, 35. "But artists don't do work anymore. I want to get back to that. Everything is so forward-thinking that we're losing our reverence for the past. You have to remember that Picasso could still paint like Rembrandt. In order to abstract, he had to learn that, first."
A typical 20-by-26-inch piece sells for about $850, Lefner says. Most people who collect his work are as intrigued by the back story as by the visual element. "What I love about it is the process he went through," says Stacey Shurgin, a
Shurgin educates her friends about the process. "If someone doesn't explain to you how it was made, you can miss it," she says.
Eric Lynxwiler, an
Lefner's work does more than merely embrace an age-old technique, says Matthew Butterick, an art collector and a student at UCLA law school. "Photographers can easily go to
Beyond the rare marriage of an ancient process with a modern aesthetic, Butterick says, Lefner's work also serves as a tool for preservation. "You look at his art, and you feel like you've seen these things before. And you have -- everybody has been down
This is part of the duality that runs through Lefner's art: He labors over linoleum blocks to create prints that are often misconceived as being birthed by a giant ink-jet printer. He searches
There are echoes of this duality in Lefner himself. The
Even now when you first see him and his muscled physique and short gelled hair, you think: football player. But then you see that his black T-shirt bears the signature of Jean-Michel Basquiat, notice the art books on his shelves, and remember that first impressions rarely tell the entire truth. This is the case with his art, also. It is a critique of consumerism and vice, but it is also a celebration of urban beauty found where we least expect it.
As Lefner prowls twilight
That's just Dave Lefner, looking.
Dave Lefner will display his linoleum reduction prints during the Brewery Artwalk, an open-studios event by the artist community at