What lies behind the buzz of Austin's hot collage artist
Lance Letscher has more than buzz going on; he has mystique workin', too. The buzz comes from Letscher's art: poetic collages concocted from "found" papers – album covers, books, handwritten recipes, notes, and magazine clippings among them – which are meticulously cut and arranged into intriguing patterns and textures that open up worlds of thoughts and associations. It's part of what's led the Austin-born and -bred artist to have two shows up in town simultaneously: "Books and Parts of Books: 1996-2004," a traveling survey at the Austin Museum of Art, and "Provisional Beauty" at D Berman Gallery. The pairing is brilliant: One can see and trace the artist's progress – and wonder where it will go next, as Letscher is barely in midcareer.
The mystique – a mixture of mystery and reverence – is that of a reticent, reclusive artist. Letscher generates mystery simply by being himself: a low-key, quiet person who lets his art do the talking for him, unless you ask him a direct question. Then he answers thoughtfully and thoroughly but without letting his focus wander. That focus is a key component of his idiosyncratic work, which started earning reverence, or respect, from the moment it first made a splash in the Texas art world as meticulous and fragile sculpture. Then, and ever since, Letscher has worked on his art assiduously, even while holding down other jobs and raising a family. Those years may have limited the amount of work he was able to send out into the world, but that added to the mystique. These days, Letscher's shows are a sea of red dots – the art world's discreet "sold" sign.
Thanks to those red dots, Letscher has been able to work full time on his art for the past three years. Daily he travels from his home in Central Austin to his studio in a two-story addition that juts out into his back yard. The bright, uncluttered work space has gauzy curtains that soften the sunlight and allow glimpses of a field of green lawn, as well as trees and leaves just a touch away. Inside, massive worktables line the walls, with books and magazines in stacks and boxes tucked underneath. These piles of future fodder are Letscher's archives, sitting in shadow, awaiting their turn to come into play on the light-table tops above. There, Letscher culls the chaos by sorting and selecting, cutting, slicing, and arranging the pieces into collages that have a precision akin to microscopic focus. Letscher only includes the essential; there is nothing extraneous.
"Books and Parts of Books" catches Letscher in midstream. He was just out of graduate school in the late 1980s when the Dallas art scene took notice of his small sculptures. Unfortunately, they took an extraordinary amount of time to make, and without the luxury of time that grad school provides, just creating new pieces became a challenge. And though they were quite heavy, they were also fragile. Galleries were reluctant to handle Letscher's work. By the early Nineties, he had reached "a critical mass of frustration" with the situation, so while working three jobs, Letscher started making "simple, small drawings to work through ideas – cutting them out and superimposing one upon another to get more density and depth. That's how the collages started," he says.
Works relating to those first efforts – delicate landscape drawings with collage elements – can be seen at AMOA. These are reminiscent of an Asian sensibility, evoking the vastness of nature in a spare drawing of a single tree carefully placed on a monochromatic ground.
Drawing has always been a part of Letscher's life. His mother, who preceded Lance to UT art school, gave her kids art supplies for their birthdays and for Christmas. Letscher remembers that making art was "a foundational element of my personality." At UT, Letscher found the medium of printmaking to be a natural extension for his drawing skills, and through it he developed his understanding of color, particularly "color harmonies, mixing, and balance."
After graduation, Letscher worked for Amado Peña, an artist known for his Southwestern-style prints. This put Letscher in a master-apprentice workshop situation, which was for him an invaluable learning experience, in both applying color and watching a commercially successful artist at work in the world. "There is a definite art to marketing your work and presenting yourself in a professional way," says Letscher. "A lot of artists have a romantic or bohemian attitude to their work. It may work in the studio, but it doesn't work when approaching galleries." Letscher now has work in about 10 galleries, stretching from San Francisco to Albuquerque, New York to Munich.
Letscher credits his time with Peña with teaching him how to navigate the commercial steps to success. Early on, he committed to gallery affiliations in Dallas and Houston, and after a number of years, this led to notice by the Howard Scott Gallery in NYC. That's when his work really began to take off, although the artist himself cannot parse out the precise reasons for his success. Showing in New York at a good gallery that published a small catalog just put his work at "the next level," where it began receiving critical attention.
Letscher notes, however, that the work itself also changed at that point, which is what makes it hard for him to identify exactly why his sales changed. He did notice that the buzz got louder because of his sold-out New York show and that "more people buy because things are happening" in the artist's career.
If we let the buzz take over, it's easy to lose sight of the fact that there would be no buzz without the art. Watching the work change and grow and develop is one of the pleasures of seeing Letscher's current shows in tandem. In time, his elegant drawings developed into much more colorful abstract works, rich in complexity and texture. He became interested in pattern and pattern-based structures, often reminiscent of quilts, which were part of Letscher's inspiration. He was attracted to "the parallel [between] fabric design and quilt making – [it was] handmade and expressive but anonymous and utilitarian. I like that aesthetic, the modesty in that.
"When something is designed as a utilitarian object, decisions are made in its construction that give it a voice – what fabrics are available – and I am trying to invest the work with a structure that has an underlying logic of craft that is expressive of something else: a personal and intimate experience in making it," reflects the artist. "It is an intuition I have; it is not completely conscious."
And there is an integrity to Letscher's materials. He uses "found" paper, art-world shorthand for materials that were created for another purpose and often were manufactured. In Letscher's case, "retrieved" paper is more specific to his process. He collects and is given discarded objects of a certain age: books, LPs, typefaces, handwritten pages full of notes, lists, recipes, letters – many of them from commercially printed sources and reflecting the popular culture of their time. Letscher considers these materials his palette, the base source from which he weaves his spell. As with quilts, it may be the familiarity of the materials that adds to his work's broad appeal.
More recently, the artist finds himself rooted in color, though not in the typical, painterly sense. "I've been trying to have color carry the emotional atmosphere," he says. "I would like to make things that are mysteriously powerful. I'd like to make a nonconscious communication that people feel and can't put their fingers on." Letscher wants his work to work for people who are not indoctrinated into art; he wants to reach people who are not in the art world, "everyday people – those are the people I want to impress."
Given Letscher's track record, it's clear that his work impresses many people. Clearly, it appeals to people who love detail, who love to connect the dots and free associate, to read things into the work. It offers them many layers, each containing different aspects of the artist's personality, and the closer they get to it, the more rewards the work delivers. In Modern Farmer, now on view at D Berman Gallery, multicolored ovals hover atop a magazine cover, but one cream-colored paper oval is carefully cut so these words can be read:
Room 225 A”
Read into that what you will; Letscher's humor sneaks up on you.
Que is a simple and profound piece composed of large and small vertical rectangles linked together in pairs by a thin black line. They are arranged on a tea-colored ground and function almost as a set of notes. This piece creates synesthesia – just by looking at it, the piece generates a recollection of resonant sound in me.
Angular Landscape, on the other hand, is purely abstract. The blocks of greens and reds and earth colors jostling one another are like bedrock undergoing enormous change – cracking, swaying, quaking – yet not falling into chaos. Instead, they are still constructive building blocks, actively rearranging themselves beneath our feet. In a way, this piece depicts the artist in relation to his buzzing audience: Letscher is the bedrock, constantly morphing into new forms, while viewers delight in seeing and participating in what was once hidden, out of sight and out of mind.
This sense of a life force in action is inherent in working with paper. It is a medium that breathes; it bends and curls or stiffens, responding to changes in the air, its temperature and humidity. That the paper he uses is from a time past is another key to the artist's sensibility. Letscher doesn't belong to our fast and furious, go-ahead, get-ahead world. It is not just that his work refers to an earlier, more grounded era; the stream he connects with seems timeless.
Letscher's artwork is a heady mix of instinct, thought, play, and deep feelings. His intriguing images activate the reflective in viewers, who connect to their own feelings and memories, perhaps even more than to the delight in the eye-catching colors, patterns, and textures that formally compose the works. This ability to send viewers on memory trips is key to Letscher's success and a reason why many of his admirers have purchased more than one Letscher work.
In the end, buzz around an artist comes and goes, and mystique fades over time. But once it leaves the studio, art lives a life of its own. Obviously, Letscher's work appeals to something deep in people that makes them want to have the objects he makes in their everyday lives. When asked what he thinks interests people in his work, the artist says simply, "The one thing that people respond to is the human element."
"Books and Parts of Books: 1996-2004" runs through Aug. 29 at the Austin Museum of Art, 823 Congress, "Provisional Beauty" runs through July 3 at D Berman Gallery, 1701 Guadalupe.