Artist Profile: Dave Lefner
By Jenny Begun
In contemporary society, rules are often made to create standards by which we evaluate the quality of work done by everyone involved in a particular task or trade. Rarely, an individual sets up his or her own. In the case of Los Angeles artist Dave Lefner, his personal benchmarks are very high. He continuously works on perfecting his skills. His artistry is elevated to the level of fine craftsmanship as he demands quality from himself. Lefner’s meticulously detailed realistic prints, so realistic that the viewers sometimes confuse them with paintings and photographs, attest to the fact that he lives up to his standards.
Lefner works in the linocut reduction technique said to be innovated and revived by Pablo Picasso in the 1950s. Linocut is short for linoleum block printing. A reduction method is a printmaking technique when a multicolored print is made using only a single block (in this case, a block of linoleum), which is cut, inked, and applied to paper under pressure. This 3-step process is repeated for each color that you see in the final image. With each subsequent cutting (reduction), the actual block gets destroyed and this same image can never be reprinted again. Usually, reductions are printed from light to dark colors.
Visible characteristics of this medium are stark lines, simple forms and shapes (often geometric), abstraction rather than realism, and overall look that brings to mind illustration and graphic design, which is not surprising if we look at the history of the medium. The Die Brücke artists, who were active between 1905 and 1913, started using linoleum as an inexpensive printing block alternative. As such, linoleum gained notoriety and in the following two decades was mainly used to popularize graphic-design imagery inspired and influenced by several important modern art movements: Cubism, Futurism and Constructivism.
Remarkably, you will see none of the above typical linocut printmaking attributes in Lefner’s prints. He executes intricate shadows from neon tubing with masterful hyper-realistic precision. Gradation of color is very important here to show the roundness of the glass and its curvatures. “People take it for granted: a shadow it’s just a shadow. But for me, when a shadow is going across the red, it’s a darker red, which means I have to mix up a different color; when it crosses a white letter, it could become gray or blue. Or, like with the doughnut pieces, the shadows cross 3 different colors and so I have to mix up 6 colors to make it appear so.”
Lefner mixes all his colors anew for each edition, except for the Telephone Wire series, where he uses unaltered red and black. “Those are the only 2, but everything else is mixed here [in the studio]. When I finish printing, I put aside a little swatch of the color I just printed so that I have a reference for when I want my next color to be a little bit darker. The thing is that I don’t have to match colors to anything, once the edition is done, I’m not going to print it again.”
The reduction technique is mentally taxing. The artist never sees the elements of the composition he is working on all at once. “Every time I sit down at the block, it’s crucial I know exactly what I’m carving away, and I have to be always thinking and visualizing how a new line would reveal this next color. If I make a mistake, when I carve, that could ruin the whole piece. It is much more focused, active carving when I’m doing the realistic neon signs,” as opposed to Telephone Wire series, which is more graphic and therefore the process is less strenuous when it comes to carving.
The artist describes himself as a slave to the medium, “I’m just a purist about it.” So, if there happens to be an unexpected curve that gets cut out in the process, he doesn’t try to fix it, touching-up or hand painting the mishap. “Everything has to be rolled on from the brayer for me. If I can’t get a little area inked up, then I have to just accept that. But after 25 years,” Lefner says, “I’m pretty good at it. I mess up more often by choosing the wrong color rather than when I’m actually carving the block.”
Choosing a wrong color lowers the edition. For example, in a recent Word series, Lefner makes 9 prints for each letter. “If I get 9 that is great. The “U” was difficult with the greens, so the first [print] became my tester because I messed up with the green form the beginning. I didn’t like that green for it. And it’s kind of nice to have one that I mess up on, so for the subsequent ones I can test the color out first. If I don’t like it, I can change, mix up the ink. So, when I’m actually printing the remaining 8, I can get the color right.”
In addition to color, the other most important aspects of linocut reduction process is registration, a method of correlating overlapping colors on one image. Simply put, it is what the artist does to make sure the block lands precisely on the same spot on the paper each time a new color is applied. “I carve the white lines from the very start. The fact that 6 colors later you still can see that white line means the registration is spot on, perfect. It’s very easy for other elements, if the registration is off just a hair, to crowd in on that line.”
Another challenge of this medium is that on the block the image is reversed and carving it requires great attention to details especially since shadows, and the light that produces them, are pivotal in his complex imagery. “I actually have to always be considering where the light source is because in the original image it’s from the opposite side and it is easy to get confused.”
Lefner doesn’t use a computer during his creative process. He works from photographs, which he takes driving around town. He projects a photograph with an opaque projector and does a drawing from that, which can be pretty loose. Then he does a charcoal tracing, carefully making sure all the lines are exactly straight and the way he wants them to look because that’s what is going to get transferred down onto the block.
“My subject matter is vintage stuff, when design really mattered,” says the artist. For his Neon Signs series, Lefner found countless sources of inspiration in Los Angeles – the city was a pioneer that embraced the innovative advertising in the 1920s. Often his work serves to preserve LA’s history as his prints document images of neon signs that were replaced with LED lights or removed due to being old and broken.
This admiration for urban scenery was first stirred by Stuart Davis’s jazzy cityscapes as well as his powerful use of words in his art. Lefner studied graphic design, but long before he entered college, he had a fascination with the printed word. “I was always an avid reader so fonts and type were a big part of my life.” Graphic design helped him develop his graphic sensibility further. In school, he also tried his hand at painting, drawing, sculpting and illustration, searching for his medium. “Eventually I took a beginning printmaking class, discovered this and my fate was sealed.” A later encounter with the Metropolitan Museum’s catalog of Picasso’s Linoleum Cuts further narrowed his technique; he used the catalog as his textbook.
Lefner can’t pass over an opportunity to challenge himself. He strives to push the boundaries of what can be done with a block of linoleum. According to him, being an artist is his profession, but it also has been his vocation since he was a child. “I knew this was what I wanted to do, whatever form it was going to take. Also, because I’ve always had this innate skill. I got into the linocut reduction knowing that there was so much room to challenge myself in this and hone my skills and really show what I can do.” And he shows it every time he picks up his carving tools.