In late fall2009, while assembling catalog images for an exhibit in Texas and anotheropening this weekend at Eight Modern in Santa Fe, Austin-based collage artistLance Letscher began to recognize a continuity and an underlying narrative insome of his newer work. From image to image, a story took shape, and Letscherbegan to explore uncharted territory: thecreation of a self-penned children’s book featuring his art. The result, titledThe Perfect Machine(University ofTexas Press, 2010), is the focus of Letscher’s exhibit in Santa Fe, which is onview through May 15.
“As soon as I thought I might want to write a story,” Letscher told Pasatiempo, “the skeleton of it wasimmediately obvious. I worked on fleshing it out for a few days, and thenrealized that there were gaps in the story that required illustrations. And Ialso realized that if I made some of the pieces I had already been thinking of,it would add body and breadth to the book’s written narrative.” The Perfect Machinetells the tale of acurious boy, a doodler and a tinkerer, who imagines what the perfect machinemight look like. A whimsical journey through the creation of contraptions like rockets,tractors, a city on wheels, a gizmothat reads books, andeven handguns leads the boy to wonder if the perfect machine might actually behimself.
Serving as a playful showcase for Letscher’s newest body of collage work, The Perfect Machinedidn’t come easy forthe artist. “It was almost like there was a feedback loop operatingbetween my usual creative process and the writing of the story,” he said.”One pushed the other along and vice-versa in a somewhat new direction;and that created a lot of anxiety for me.” Letscher explained that withinthe meticulous arrangement of patterns evident in many of his other piecesthere was a “safe remove” with regard to his personality and innerlife. “In previous collage works I could fabricate things and createcharacters, and I didn’t really have to talk about myself in such a direct modeof expression if I didn’t really want to,” he said. “I felt like Iwas giving a lot of myself up in the PerfectMachinestory, and I was revealing things about myself that I thought wouldcome under scrutiny.” Letscher had an image in his mind of the people whoregularly viewed and collected his collages, and he felt that he was”going off in a direction where those people might assume I’d lost my minda little bit.”
In an introduction to the 2009 monograph titled Lance Letscher: Collage(University of Texas Press), art criticand journalist Charles Dee Mitchelldescribes some of Letscher’s earlier work — sculpture and woodwork, mostly –as dark and linked to emotional trauma in the artist’s childhood. And whileguarded about most experiences from his younger years, Letscher admits thatdark themes are woven into some of the pieces he created while working as anight tech in a wood shop during his graduate studies at the University of Texas(he holds a B.F.A. and M.F.A. from the university, with a printmakingbackground). “Yeah, I was pretty melodramatic inmy 20s,” he joked. “But I also had access to tons of high-end toolsand a good sense of practicality. I made things with the tools while I had thechance.” Letscher then discovered naturalismandhand carving and switched from wood to marble as his three-dimensional medium.”I loved marble because of how luminous and ethereal it was,” hesaid. “I was sort of in a depressed frame of mind back then. Carving marbleindoctrinated me into the funerary qualities of the materialitself, and I suppose that also helped drive the darker context of some of mysculptural work.”
That work eventually required larger slabs of marble which, lacking a studio atthe time, Letscher carved in his backyard in Austin. “But the work startedtaking longer and I wasn’t getting anything finished,” he said. “Istarted having a crisis about my career’s direction.” To get beyond thatmind-set, Letscher literally went back to the drawing board. “I beganmaking little sketches in the living room on a TV trayin the company of my kids.I could draw at night and cut things out and make six collages in one sitting.I felt like I was being productive and working on solid ideas again.”Cutting out drawings and pictures and superimposing them onto a board or paper,Letscher produced layered, densely packed spaces for the creative impulses thathe couldn’t relate through marble. When that took hold, he said, “I juststarted running with it.”
In the early-to-mid ’90s, Letscher began working (and would work for manyyears) in the Austin studio of Amado Peña. Before the studio closed, Letscherproduced color etchings and other work at the Southwest artist’s Texas homebase. “I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Peña,” Letscher said.”Many ideas regarding my color vocabulary and advice about the trickybusiness side of the art world can be attributed to him.”
When space became available for Letscher at Peña’s studio, he began creatinglarger collage pieces. As Letscher’s works increased in size and frequency, so,too, did his need for raw materials. Meticulously manipulated found objects inthe form of handwritten and printed materials and faded vinyl recordsleeves sporting an array of fonts, pictures, and colors inform a majority ofLetscher’s work. In the bookstore dumpsters of Austin, during the then-presumeddeath rattle of vinyl records and amid an ever-waningrespect for the printed word, he struck gold. He continues to mine refusereceptacles, among other sources, for castaway books, letters, LP covers, and other ephemera,sorting them into boxes based not necessarily on size, shape, or color, but bydates, memories, and the characters or narratives he imagines.
A commission to create a large-scale collage for Dell Children’s Medical Centerof Central Texas in Austin played a role in Letscher’s embrace of a morechildlike approach. “In the process of conceptualizing that piece, I beganto think of my work in terms of a more juvenile audience. I wanted to make thecollage appeal to kids, obviously, and I wanted to put a lot of imagery in itthat would draw on their imagination and catch their attention.”
Letscher’s current collages may speak to a more playful side in a gallerysetting, but his methodology still includes hours of rote cutting and shaping.With few exceptions, which include the inside wrap of his Collagemonograph, he doesn’t rely on templates or hand-drawnpatterns to push the work toward quick completion. “That tends to stripthe organic quality of the work away,” he said. “I want to havethings stay improvisational, and I don’t want to control too much of what I’mdoing on the proverbial canvas, because there’s more truth in the work withoutall of that. When you’re kind of desperate and feel like you’re failing, you dothings you wouldn’t normally do. You take risks as an artist, and that’sultimately your job. A lot of the things I do in the studio, I do tointentionally thwart my natural inclination to want to be mentally andpsychologically at ease. It’s a conscious decision to be unnerved butall-willing the moment I approach the blank surface.”
Letscher said that he takes all of the strict instructions and self-imposedrules that an art education can sometimes foster and applies them in such a waythat they can’t obstruct the final stages of his creative process. “If youhaven’t guessed by now,” he explained, “I spend a lot of time in thestudio alone, cutting pieces of paper and other materials. It’s during thosehours that my mind wanders, and I develop stories and create characters ornarratives.” Take, for instance, the handguns in The Perfect Machine. “The presence of the guns,” he said,”is the most complete autobiographical aspect of the children’s book, andit’s so innocent; but at the same time it delicately hints at the dangers sucha contraption can imply. My uncle had an Astra-model handgun used by the GermanCondor Legionof the Luftwaffe duringthe last leg of the Spanish Civil War. They were crude weapons that looked kind of like aray gun. My uncle would take my cousins and I out shooting when I was about 10years old, and thus, that gun has acquired a mythical placein my memory. I was lucky enoughto find one, and it found its place in the book.”
Like a boy painstakingly arranging toy soldiers before engaging in a battlewhose outcome is unknown and perhaps unimportant to anyone else, Letschercompartmentalizes the repetitive aspects of his collage work early on, leavingthe rest of his time for the serious work of playing with memories, some darkand some imagined, others real and bathed in bright colors. But all of them areapproached with a sensitivity and sense of purpose that many people — artistsor not — often leave behind in childhood.
Lance Letscher: The Perfect Machine
Opening reception with the artist 5:30-7:30 p.m. Friday, April 2; exhibitthrough May 15
Eight Modern, 231 Delgado