photo by Kenny Braun
Lance Letscher has more than
buzz going on; he has mystique workin', too. The buzz comes from
Letscher's art: poetic collages concocted from "found"
papers – album covers, books, handwritten recipes, notes, and magazine
clippings among them – which are meticulously cut and arranged into
intriguing patterns and textures that open up worlds of thoughts
and associations. It's part of what's led the Austin-born and -bred
artist to have two shows up in town simultaneously: "Books
and Parts of Books: 1996-2004," a traveling survey at the Austin
Museum of Art, and "Provisional Beauty" at D Berman Gallery.
The pairing is brilliant: One can see and trace the artist's progress
– and wonder where it will go next, as Letscher is barely in midcareer.
The mystique – a mixture of
mystery and reverence – is that of a reticent, reclusive artist.
Letscher generates mystery simply by being himself: a low-key, quiet
person who lets his art do the talking for him, unless you ask him
a direct question. Then he answers thoughtfully and thoroughly but
without letting his focus wander. That focus is a key component
of his idiosyncratic work, which started earning reverence, or respect,
from the moment it first made a splash in the Texas art world as
meticulous and fragile sculpture. Then, and ever since, Letscher
has worked on his art assiduously, even while holding down other
jobs and raising a family. Those years may have limited the amount
of work he was able to send out into the world, but that added to
the mystique. These days, Letscher's shows are a sea of red dots
– the art world's discreet "sold" sign.
Thanks to those red dots,
Letscher has been able to work full time on his art for the past
three years. Daily he travels from his home in Central Austin to
his studio in a two-story addition that juts out into his back yard.
The bright, uncluttered work space has gauzy curtains that soften
the sunlight and allow glimpses of a field of green lawn, as well
as trees and leaves just a touch away. Inside, massive worktables
line the walls, with books and magazines in stacks and boxes tucked
underneath. These piles of future fodder are Letscher's archives,
sitting in shadow, awaiting their turn to come into play on the
light-table tops above. There, Letscher culls the chaos by sorting
and selecting, cutting, slicing, and arranging the pieces into collages
that have a precision akin to microscopic focus. Letscher only includes
the essential; there is nothing extraneous.
Drawn to Paper
"Books and Parts of Books" catches Letscher in midstream.
He was just out of graduate school in the late 1980s when the Dallas
art scene took notice of his small sculptures. Unfortunately, they
took an extraordinary amount of time to make, and without the luxury
of time that grad school provides, just creating new pieces became
a challenge. And though they were quite heavy, they were also fragile.
Galleries were reluctant to handle Letscher's work. By the early
Nineties, he had reached "a critical mass of frustration"
with the situation, so while working three jobs, Letscher started
making "simple, small drawings to work through ideas – cutting
them out and superimposing one upon another to get more density
and depth. That's how the collages started," he says.
Works relating to those first efforts – delicate landscape drawings
with collage elements – can be seen at AMOA. These are reminiscent
of an Asian sensibility, evoking the vastness of nature in a spare
drawing of a single tree carefully placed on a monochromatic ground.
Drawing has always been a
part of Letscher's life. His mother, who preceded Lance to UT art
school, gave her kids art supplies for their birthdays and for Christmas.
Letscher remembers that making art was "a foundational element
of my personality." At UT, Letscher found the medium of printmaking
to be a natural extension for his drawing skills, and through it
he developed his understanding of color, particularly "color
harmonies, mixing, and balance."
After graduation, Letscher
worked for Amado Peña, an artist known for his Southwestern-style
prints. This put Letscher in a master-apprentice workshop situation,
which was for him an invaluable learning experience, in both applying
color and watching a commercially successful artist at work in the
world. "There is a definite art to marketing your work and
presenting yourself in a professional way," says Letscher.
"A lot of artists have a romantic or bohemian attitude to their
work. It may work in the studio, but it doesn't work when approaching
galleries." Letscher now has work in about 10 galleries, stretching
from San Francisco to Albuquerque, New York to Munich.
Letscher credits his time
with Peña with teaching him how to navigate the commercial
steps to success. Early on, he committed to gallery affiliations
in Dallas and Houston, and after a number of years, this led to
notice by the Howard Scott Gallery in NYC. That's when his work
really began to take off, although the artist himself cannot parse
out the precise reasons for his success. Showing in New York at
a good gallery that published a small catalog just put his work
at "the next level," where it began receiving critical
Letscher notes, however, that
the work itself also changed at that point, which is what makes
it hard for him to identify exactly why his sales changed. He did
notice that the buzz got louder because of his sold-out New York
show and that "more people buy because things are happening"
in the artist's career.
If we let the buzz take over, it's easy to lose sight of the fact
that there would be no buzz without the art. Watching the work change
and grow and develop is one of the pleasures of seeing Letscher's
current shows in tandem. In time, his elegant drawings developed
into much more colorful abstract works, rich in complexity and texture.
He became interested in pattern and pattern-based structures, often
reminiscent of quilts, which were part of Letscher's inspiration.
He was attracted to "the parallel [between] fabric design and
quilt making – [it was] handmade and expressive but anonymous and
utilitarian. I like that aesthetic, the modesty in that.
"When something is designed as a utilitarian object, decisions
are made in its construction that give it a voice – what fabrics
are available – and I am trying to invest the work with a structure
that has an underlying logic of craft that is expressive of something
else: a personal and intimate experience in making it," reflects
the artist. "It is an intuition I have; it is not completely
photo by Kenny Braun
And there is an integrity
to Letscher's materials. He uses "found" paper, art-world
shorthand for materials that were created for another purpose and
often were manufactured. In Letscher's case, "retrieved"
paper is more specific to his process. He collects and is given
discarded objects of a certain age: books, LPs, typefaces, handwritten
pages full of notes, lists, recipes, letters – many of them from
commercially printed sources and reflecting the popular culture
of their time. Letscher considers these materials his palette, the
base source from which he weaves his spell. As with quilts, it may
be the familiarity of the materials that adds to his work's broad
More recently, the artist
finds himself rooted in color, though not in the typical, painterly
sense. "I've been trying to have color carry the emotional
atmosphere," he says. "I would like to make things that
are mysteriously powerful. I'd like to make a nonconscious communication
that people feel and can't put their fingers on." Letscher
wants his work to work for people who are not indoctrinated into
art; he wants to reach people who are not in the art world, "everyday
people – those are the people I want to impress."
Down the Memory Hole
Given Letscher's track record, it's clear that his work impresses
many people. Clearly, it appeals to people who love detail, who
love to connect the dots and free associate, to read things into
the work. It offers them many layers, each containing different
aspects of the artist's personality, and the closer they get to
it, the more rewards the work delivers. In Modern Farmer, now on
view at D Berman Gallery, multicolored ovals hover atop a magazine
cover, but one cream-colored paper oval is carefully cut so these
words can be read:
photo by Kenny Braun
Room 225 A"
Read into that what you will;
Letscher's humor sneaks up on you.
Que is a simple and profound
piece composed of large and small vertical rectangles linked together
in pairs by a thin black line. They are arranged on a tea-colored
ground and function almost as a set of notes. This piece creates
synesthesia – just by looking at it, the piece generates a recollection
of resonant sound in me.
photo by Kenny Braun
Angular Landscape, on the
other hand, is purely abstract. The blocks of greens and reds and
earth colors jostling one another are like bedrock undergoing enormous
change – cracking, swaying, quaking – yet not falling into chaos.
Instead, they are still constructive building blocks, actively rearranging
themselves beneath our feet. In a way, this piece depicts the artist
in relation to his buzzing audience: Letscher is the bedrock, constantly
morphing into new forms, while viewers delight in seeing and participating
in what was once hidden, out of sight and out of mind.
This sense of a life force
in action is inherent in working with paper. It is a medium that
breathes; it bends and curls or stiffens, responding to changes
in the air, its temperature and humidity. That the paper he uses
is from a time past is another key to the artist's sensibility.
Letscher doesn't belong to our fast and furious, go-ahead, get-ahead
world. It is not just that his work refers to an earlier, more grounded
era; the stream he connects with seems timeless.
Letscher's artwork is a heady
mix of instinct, thought, play, and deep feelings. His intriguing
images activate the reflective in viewers, who connect to their
own feelings and memories, perhaps even more than to the delight
in the eye-catching colors, patterns, and textures that formally
compose the works. This ability to send viewers on memory trips
is key to Letscher's success and a reason why many of his admirers
have purchased more than one Letscher work.
In the end, buzz around an
artist comes and goes, and mystique fades over time. But once it
leaves the studio, art lives a life of its own. Obviously, Letscher's
work appeals to something deep in people that makes them want to
have the objects he makes in their everyday lives. When asked what
he thinks interests people in his work, the artist says simply,
"The one thing that people respond to is the human element."
"Books and Parts of Books:
1996-2004" runs through Aug. 29 at the Austin Museum of Art,
823 Congress, "Provisional Beauty" runs through July 3
at D Berman Gallery, 1701 Guadalupe.
and Parts of Books: 1996-2004'
Austin Museum of Art Downtown, through Aug. 29
BY MOLLY BETH BRENNER
Since its inception, collage has thrived in the corners of the art
world. From scrapbook pages to fine artworks, thoughtfully constructed
mélanges of odds and ends so often turn out worlds greater
than the sum of their parts, visually and conceptually. This is
especially true of the work of Lance Letscher, an Austin artist
whose creations, made with bits of old books, handwritten letters,
ledgers, and other manuscripts, garner international acclaim.
For me, Letscher's art is reminiscent of no other artist's. It is
eminently identifiable, deeply stamped with his unique process and
style. This does not mean that all his pieces look the same; on
the contrary, his current retrospective at the Austin Museum of
Art is exciting in its breadth and diversity, even within the narrow
subheading of "Lance Letscher's collage made with found text
after 1996." Using variation of hue, texture, and media, Letscher
manages to test the boundaries of the highly specific materials
and methods with which he is so closely identified.
Because Letscher's collages are made of found text media, they are
bound by the limits of those materials. This is immediately apparent
in the aged color palettes of Letscher's work: These are, in the
words of the show's curator, "the colors of the past."
What's surprising, though, is that through Letscher's outstanding
craft, these colors are placed in contexts that lead to new and
unusual readings of them. In The Sun, a pencil and found-paper piece,
the artist has arranged tiny paper diamonds, aged to different hues
of gray-yellow, in a radiating pattern of gradating hues. The bits
work together to create a sunburst with all the dynamism of a brightly-colored
painting, but here the sense of movement is created by the careful
arrangement of the papers, not any hint of bright color. Taken separately,
each shard of dull gray is a useless scrap; together, they create
the illusion of intense radiation.
Letscher's most familiar pieces are more gaily colored, often featuring
pinwheel patterns and series of colored strips, bits of text (handwritten
and printed), and nostalgic wallpaperlike patterns. These are the
artworks that keep on giving: Depending on your perspective, your
distance from the piece, and even your height, they reveal a different
combination of treasures at each glance. The 4-foot-long Red Bar
is a huge array of tiny, multihued bits of cardboard arranged in
columns, with chunks of random-seeming found text ("longevity!,"
"London time," "bats") embedded in its indexlike
corpus. I walked by it several times, both at close range and from
a distance, and each time my mind registered wildly different imprints
from the piece's miniature stimulations. It's like an art Rorschach;
many of Letscher's collages in this style offer this sort of open-ended,
continuous conversation. It's no wonder that they're such favorites
The numerous faces of Letscher's collage art are visible in AMOA's
show, from his series of thickly built-up, industrially stapled
landscapes to his more representative figures of book-cover trees
and honeycomb skies to his pieces that rely more strongly on drawing
for their impact. Each family of work deserves its own commentary,
though there's not enough space here to allow for it. Perhaps the
most satisfying aspect of the show, though, is the sense of possibility
that's derived from witnessing such a specialized art niche unfold
into countless forms and patterns, like the fanning out of freshly
cut paper chains.
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