Lance Fever has struck Austin again.
No, not the excitement that every summer surrounds cycling champion Lance Armstrong when he races in the Tour de France.
This brand of Lance Fever surrounds artist Lance Letscher, the 42-year-old native Austinite who in the past half dozen years or so has emerged as one of the most popular -- and most collected -- artists in Austin. Now, thanks to an eight-year survey of his work at the Austin Museum of Art and a simultaneous show of new work at D. Berman Gallery, Lance Fever is once again running at full throttle.
Simply put: People are crazy about Letscher's engaging yet elusive collages that are delicately crafted from scraps of old paper and books. In the studio adjoining his Central Austin home, Letscher splices together, with a surgeon's precision, often tiny fragments of old handwritten letters, lists, recipes and ledgers and also vintage printed materials such as books and magazines. Then, he merges these scraps into either recognizable images (landscapes or botanical studies) or into abstract patterns and shapes. Some are small and jewel-like; others span several feet in length. Some are sinewy symphonies of delicate lines or intricate fugues of geometric shapes; others bedazzle with blocks of saturated color, dizzying pinwheels or sweeping ellipses.
People just can't stop buying Letscher's collages, small or large, subtle or strong.
Of the 30 new ones in the D. Berman exhibit, 12 sold before the show opened. Since then, another 11 have sold along with a good-sized handful of Letscher's older works and he's received two commissions from private collectors. (Letscher's collages range in price from under $1,000 to $10,000.)
And people clamor just to see Letscher's colorful, tactile art, too. So many people tried to get a sneak peek of Letscher's new work while the folks at Fine Arts Services were framing it that visitors were turned away. More than once, associate gallery director Anatasia Budziszewski has arrived in the morning to find people waiting in front of the Guadalupe Street gallery for the doors to open.
"They know it, they love it and they just can't wait to see it," she says. At the museum, on the first day the Letscher exhibit was open to the public, 150 people came through the doors.
Not that all the success has made Letscher a wealthy man. A University of Texas art school alum and father of two sons, Letscher has only in the last three years or so been lucky enough to derive his income solely from sales of his art. For year, he supervised the wood shop at UT's art school and worked for artist Amado Peña and his fine art print business.
It's not just Austin that has Lance Fever. In 2002, Letscher had his first New York solo show at Howard Scott Gallery. It got rave reviews from the usually tough New York critics. And it sold out. A solo show in Munich last year sold well, as did shows at Houston's Roni McMurtry Gallery and at Dallas' Conduit Gallery.
So what is so compelling about Letscher's collages? Why do people -- not just wealthy collectors, but artists and folks with modest means, too -- snatch them up?
Some suggest that it's their mesmerizing quality -- that, given our natural curiosity and our inborn desire to connects bits and put them into a whole, we just can't stop being transfixed by their pattern and complexity.
"They reward prolonged looking," says Austin-based artist Will Klemm. "They never wear off." Klemm, whose own softly defined landscape paintings are much-loved and much-collected, says that after seeing Letscher's 2001 solo show at D. Berman he was so charmed and taken he did something he'd never done before: "I made my first fan call to an artist." Now, Klemm owns six of Letscher's works. "Lance's works are completely sincere --there's nothing pretentious about them," says Klemm. "They're products of a very earnest visual intelligence at play."
Klemm is not the only popular and esteemed Texas artist who is drawn to the sincerity of Letscher's work; Austin painter Julie Speed is, too, and she lent one of the two Letscher works she owns to the museum exhibit. "I think the reasons why collectors flock to buy Lance's work are simple," she says. "Most of all, it is honest work. He is following his own path. There is a sense of quiet strength, not bombast. His is not a one-note message which, once read, can then be dispensed with."
Of course, others find themselves viscerally attracted to the multi-layered effect in Letscher's work. There's an immediate graphic grab to them that pulls the viewer in. On close inspection, details of the vintage paper are revealed: words, numbers, dates. Then step back, and you might realize that the image is actually an abstract landscape.
Mary Stephenson first discovered Letscher's collages about three years ago; now she owns five. "I love the idea that there's something under what you see at first, like a palimpsest," she says. On her modest salary as the director of volunteer services at Hospice Austin, Stephenson has to stretch her budget to accommodate her Lance passion. "But I like that I have art that's taken me longer to pay off than my refrigerator," she says. "(Art) is a diversion that keeps me rich."