In the few hours before twilight, you can find Dave Lefner driving slowly through Los Angeles' sprawl, peering from the window of his black Ford Explorer, seeking out shadows. Mostly, it's signs that catch his attention: "Liquor!" and "Cigarettes!" and other exclamations written in the twists and turns of neon tubing. The signs are bright and showy in nighttime, but in daylight, rougher edges emerge — the rust and graffiti of urban decay. Lefner captures it all through his Canon SLR, jotting down the exact time and place of each shot. Dozens of photos and Post-its litter the cab of his SUV.
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 Los Angeles, and begins the process of linoleum reduction printing, a century-old technique made famous by Picasso that in recent years has been widely abandoned in favor of large-format digital printing. In fact, few artists or printmakers still do linoleum reduction printing, says Richard Duardo, chairman of the Graphic Arts Council at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and himself a master printer.
"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 façades 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 New York real estate developer who owns two Lefner prints. "Once he carves and prints a color, there's no going back. It's almost like the opposite of peeling an onion: He's building the onion in reverse. I'm not someone who's into the arts. His piece was the second piece of art I've ever bought. But since then I've become more interested in what I put on my wall."
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 L.A. urban anthropologist who owns a Lefner print, does the same. "People come into my house and say, 'Nice poster!' " Lynxwiler says. "I tell them, 'It's not a poster! It's a linoleum reduction print. I don't put posters in my house.'"
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 Yosemite and shoot 8-by-10 shots, just like Ansel Adams did," Butterick says. "The difficulty lies in taking the established medium and finding something new to depict. That's what Lefner does: He combines a wonderful old technique with a very modern subject matter and sensibility."
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 Beverly Boulevard and seen the Spanish Kitchen sign." If you want to see it now, though, you'll have to visit the Lefner print hanging in Butterick's piano room. The original is no more: Of the fabled Spanish Kitchen sign, all that remains is "Spa," a reference to the new tenant's line of business. "Lefner chronicles decay," Butterick says, "but in doing so he's also preserving L.A. history."
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 Los Angeles for the right façade, the right signage, but the images he immortalizes are the things that most people never remember, except in that déjà vu moment when spying a Lefner print.
There are echoes of this duality in Lefner himself. The San Fernando Valley native felt the irony of attending private college prep schools "when I knew that I wanted to be an artist. I felt bad." In high school he led one life as a football player on the state champion team, and another as a burgeoning artist and straight-A student. "Football in high school was the antithesis of art," Lefner says.
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 L.A., he notices that the "shadows you see don't look like the signs that cast them. Sometimes they almost look like medieval script." He's reminded of Plato's metaphor of the cave: We're all stuck in a cave that is this world, and we see shadows on the walls cast by the unknown "reality" that exists outdoors. If Lefner looks closely enough at the shadows, maybe he can depict their source? That's the idea. So Angelenos, if the black SUV in front of you is driving too slowly and stopping at every liquor sign on Melrose, don't honk.
That's just Dave Lefner, looking.
Steven Barrie-Anthony can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. *
Dave Lefner will display his linoleum reduction prints during the Brewery Artwalk, an open-studios event by the artist community at 2100 N. Main St. in downtown Los Angeles. The event runs 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Admission and parking are free. Information: http://www.breweryartwalk.com .