Paintings with Throwaways

Pasatiempo, The Santa Fe New Mexican
By Rob DeWalt
April 2-8, 2010

In late fall 2009, while assembling catalog images for an exhibit in Texas and another opening this weekend at Eight Modern in Santa Fe, Austin-based collage artist Lance Letscher began to recognize a continuity and an underlying narrative in some of his newer work. From image to image, a story took shape, and Letscher began to explore uncharted territory: the creation of a self-penned children’s book featuring his art. The result, titled The Perfect Machine(University of Texas Press, 2010), is the focus of Letscher’s exhibit in Santa Fe, which is on view through May 15.

“As soon as I thought I might want to write a story,” Letscher told Pasatiempo, “the skeleton of it was immediately obvious. I worked on fleshing it out for a few days, and then realized that there were gaps in the story that required illustrations. And I also 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 Machine tells the tale of a curious boy, a doodler and a tinkerer, who imagines what the perfect machine might look like. A whimsical journey through the creation of contraptions like rockets,tractors, a city on wheels, a gizmo that reads books, and even handguns leads the boy to wonder if the perfect machine might actually be himself.

Serving as a playful showcase for Letscher’s newest body of collage work, The Perfect Machine didn’t come easy for the artist. “It was almost like there was a feedback loop operating between 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 within the meticulous arrangement of patterns evident in many of his other pieces there was a “safe remove” with regard to his personality and inner life. “In previous collage works I could fabricate things and create characters, and I didn’t really have to talk about myself in such a direct mode of expression if I didn’t really want to,” he said. “I felt like I was giving a lot of myself up in the Perfect Machine story, and I was revealing things about myself that I thought would come under scrutiny.” Letscher had an image in his mind of the people who regularly 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 mind a little bit.”

In an introduction to the 2009 monograph titled Lance Letscher: Collage(University of Texas Press), art critic and journalist Charles Dee Mitchell describes some of Letscher’s earlier work — sculpture and woodwork, mostly –as dark and linked to emotional trauma in the artist’s childhood. And while guarded about most experiences from his younger years, Letscher admits that dark themes are woven into some of the pieces he created while working as a night 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 printmaking background). “Yeah, I was pretty melodramatic in my 20s,” he joked. “But I also had access to tons of high-end tools and a good sense of practicality. I made things with the tools while I had the chance.” Letscher then discovered naturalism and hand carving and switched from wood to marble as his three-dimensional medium.”I loved marble because of how luminous and ethereal it was,” he said. “I was sort of in a depressed frame of mind back then. Carving marble indoctrinated me into the funerary qualities of the material itself, and I suppose that also helped drive the darker context of some of my sculptural work.”

That work eventually required larger slabs of marble which, lacking a studio at the time, Letscher carved in his backyard in Austin. “But the work started taking longer and I wasn’t getting anything finished,” he said. “I started having a crisis about my career’s direction.” To get beyond that mind-set, Letscher literally went back to the drawing board. “I began making little sketches in the living room on a TV tray in 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 that he couldn’t relate through marble. When that took hold, he said, “I just started running with it.”

In the early-to-mid ’90s, Letscher began working (and would work for many years) in the Austin studio of Amado Peña. Before the studio closed, Letscher produced color etchings and other work at the Southwest artist’s Texas home base. “I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Peña,” Letscher said.”Many ideas regarding my color vocabulary and advice about the tricky business side of the art world can be attributed to him.”

When space became available for Letscher at Peña’s studio, he began creating larger collage pieces. As Letscher’s works increased in size and frequency, so,too, did his need for raw materials. Meticulously manipulated found objects in the form of handwritten and printed materials and faded vinyl record sleeves sporting an array of fonts, pictures, and colors inform a majority of Letscher’s work. In the bookstore dumpsters of Austin, during the then-presumed death rattle of vinyl records and amid an ever-waning respect for the printed word, he struck gold. He continues to mine refuse receptacles, 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 by dates, memories, and the characters or narratives he imagines.

A commission to create a large-scale collage for Dell Children’s Medical Center of Central Texas in Austin played a role in Letscher’s embrace of a more childlike approach. “In the process of conceptualizing that piece, I began to think of my work in terms of a more juvenile audience. I wanted to make the collage appeal to kids, obviously, and I wanted to put a lot of imagery in it that would draw on their imagination and catch their attention.”

Letscher’s current collages may speak to a more playful side in a gallery setting, but his methodology still includes hours of rote cutting and shaping.With few exceptions, which include the inside wrap of his Collage monograph, he doesn’t rely on templates or hand-drawn patterns to push the work toward quick completion. “That tends to strip the organic quality of the work away,” he said. “I want to have things stay improvisational, and I don’t want to control too much of what I’m doing on the proverbial canvas, because there’s more truth in the work without all of that. When you’re kind of desperate and feel like you’re failing, you do things you wouldn’t normally do. You take risks as an artist, and that’s ultimately your job. A lot of the things I do in the studio, I do to intentionally thwart my natural inclination to want to be mentally and psychologically at ease. It’s a conscious decision to be unnerved but all-willing the moment I approach the blank surface.”

Letscher said that he takes all of the strict instructions and self-imposed rules that an art education can sometimes foster and applies them in such a way that they can’t obstruct the final stages of his creative process. “If you haven’t guessed by now,” he explained, “I spend a lot of time in the studio alone, cutting pieces of paper and other materials. It’s during those hours that my mind wanders, and I develop stories and create characters or narratives.” 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, and it’s so innocent; but at the same time it delicately hints at the dangers such a contraption can imply. My uncle had an Astra-model handgun used by the German Condor Legion of the Luftwaffe during the last leg of the Spanish Civil War. They were crude weapons that looked kind of like a ray gun. My uncle would take my cousins and I out shooting when I was about 10 years old, and thus, that gun has acquired a mythical place in my memory. I was lucky enough to find one, and it found its place in the book.”

Like a boy painstakingly arranging toy soldiers before engaging in a battle whose outcome is unknown and perhaps unimportant to anyone else, Letscher compartmentalizes the repetitive aspects of his collage work early on, leaving the rest of his time for the serious work of playing with memories, some dark and some imagined, others real and bathed in bright colors. But all of them are approached with a sensitivity and sense of purpose that many people — artists or 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; exhibit through May 15
Eight Modern, 231 Delgado