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The Optimistic Edge: The Reduction Linocuts of Dave Lefner

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Artist Dave Lefner can happily spend hours at a time carving away small sections of linoleum with the edge of a metal gouge to create linocuts of motor lodge and liquor store signs, cars, Tootsie Pops or other icons of mid-century American life. The Sky Ranch, Stardust and Half Moon Motel, Continentals and Thunderbirds -- his vibrantly colored and finely detailed signs, cars and buildings are iconic representations of the great energy and optimism associated with the nation's golden age, when Americans not only dreamed of travel by car but journeys into space, to the moon and the stars. After 20 years of working as a printmaker, Lefner now has a body of work that truly captures this moment in American cultural history and reflects not only the optimism of the time but also his own optimism as an artist.

The reduction linocut technique Lefner uses to create these evocative images was appropriately enough a product of that same period, but of Paris, where the technique was invented in the 1950s by Picasso. When Lefner explains the multiple stages of his reduction linocut process, many people ask him why he goes to the trouble of taking a photograph, projecting it onto paper, tracing its outlines, transferring the lines onto a linoleum block, cutting away a few details of the image at a time before applying each color, all the while making sure that the registration is perfect and ultimately destroying the block so it can't be used again. Why would anyone work so hard to create an image that can only be printed a handful of times? Wouldn't it be easier to use silkscreen printing or even make a few paintings?

Dave Lefner carving details out of design on linoleum; Photograph by Prakash Shroff | Courtesy of the artist
Dave Lefner carving details out of design on linoleum. |  Photo: Prakash Shroff, courtesy of the artist.

To Lefner, it was in part the precise and time-consuming nature of the process that drew him to reduction linocuts. When he was an art student at CalState Northridge, he explored numerous artistic techniques and forms and visited every art show he could find in the hope of discovering an art form that really spoke to him. This was the early 1990s and had little interest in "just pinning a white piece of paper to the wall and calling it art." Instead, he explains, "I was looking for something that would challenge my skills as an artist." He found this challenge to some degree in graphic design, typography and letterpress printing, but these artistic forms didn't fit him well as a fine artist. It was when he was looking through a book about Picasso's linocuts that he realized that the labor-intensive art form of reduction linocuts was what he wanted to pursue. "I wanted something that was getting back to a time where the artist was respected as an artisan, and there was a kind of skill involved in order to turn out a final piece."

And skill he has in abundance. Crediting his genes -- his mother is an artist and his father an engineer, -- Lefner possesses both an instinct for color and composition and an almost scientific approach to detail, skills that add dimension to what could easily be flat imagery. In his series of 1950s hotel signs from around the Southwest region, his thoughtful layering of color and tone to recreate the shadows of the tubing of the neon light lettering pop the hotel names out against the deep background colors. With similar artistic wizardy, Lefner also manages to convince us that the white details of his prints are a shade whiter than the paper itself, or in the case of his cars, not white at all, but lovingly polished chrome or steel. In his recent work, "The Continental," what appears to be a largely monochrome rendition of this classic car is actually achieved using 7 colors, subtly employed to create volume, depth and sheen.

"7212 Sunset Blvd. (A)," "LA Alphabet" Series by Dave Lefner, 2012, Reduction linocut in 4 colors, Edition of 26, 6" x 6" | Courtesy of the artist and Skidmore Contemporary Art
"7212 Sunset Blvd. (A)," "LA Alphabet" Series by Dave Lefner, 2012, Reduction linocut in 4 colors, Edition of 26, 6" x 6" | Courtesy of the artist and Skidmore Contemporary Art.

In a playful homage to his love of lettering and perhaps inspired by the reduction in his linocut process, Lefner has begun a new series entitled "LA Alphabet," reducing his images to a single letter. Selecting each letter from a vintage neon sign somewhere in the city, he invites others to join him in an artistic scavenger hunt around the city to find these artistic gems. By spotlighting single letters, Lefner forces us to pay attention to the many different styles of lettering used in these vibrant, cheerful signs, which are not only dazzling at night when lit by neon, but are also masterpieces of mid-century design by day.

"The Los Angeles (II)" by Dave Lefner, 2009, Reduction linocut in 8 colors, Edition of 10, 13" x 36" | Courtesy of the artist and Skidmore Contemporary Art
"The Los Angeles (II)" by Dave Lefner, 2009, Reduction linocut in 8 colors, Edition of 10, 13" x 36" | Courtesy of the artist and Skidmore Contemporary Art.

In an era of short attention spans and digital technology, Dave Lefner is eager to preserve and perfect what he sees as a dying art. Now one of the country's foremost reduction linocut artists, he is hopeful that his work will help people appreciate the importance of skill in the creation of art. In the subjects he depicts, he also draws our attention to other art forms -- like typography and sign making -- that we have taken for granted and neglected. As he drives around the country or walks the streets of Downtown Los Angeles, Lefner photographs the signs of dilapidated liquor stores, restaurants, movie theaters and hotels and gives them new life in his linocuts. Some of the architectural details he has used have since disappeared to make room for the new. But armed with optimism, skill and a belief in the importance of hard work, Lefner uses this painstaking artistic process in which the printing block itself does not survive, to remind us to make sure our own cultural heritage does.

Dave Lefner's works can be seen at his website, and via a short documentary film. An exhibition of his work "Destination L.A.: A Road Trip" is on view at Skidmore Contemporary Art, Bergamot Station from October 18 to November 15, 2014. He will be opening his studio for the Brewery Fall Art Walk, October 25 and 26, 2014.

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