Dave Lefner’s one of those wizards that’s so well known – but more importantly so good at their art – that his pieces come up on the first page of results in a Google image search for ‘linocut’.
That really means nothing of course, but what does carry weight is how amazingly well he’s mastered the art of reduction linocuts on a grand scale. His pieces have become so in demand over his 25+ year career that they can command anything up to $4,000 for one edition, and he’s also lucky enough to be able to call linocutting a full-time job.
As if all this wasn’t annoying enough, his work focuses on an element of the world I happen to love – the neon sign. Based in LA, Lefner is at the very heart of the vintage neon scene, it would seem, and he’s also become something of an archivist of these old signs too, rendering them from photos he takes while out scouting for the right shapes, the right shadows.
I’ve written about him before, and always dreamt of owning a Lefner. I’ve also always been in awe of his attention to detail on the many precisely cut enormous retro multi-layered near-photo-real perfectly colour-matched iconic reduction linocuts he makes.
And sells. Actually I’ve rarely felt so inadequate.
So, imagine my delight when he agreed to take time out to be interviewed and was a 120% nice guy to boot. Enough of my warbling – make way for the master…
Hey Dave – when did you start linocutting?
I did my first woodcut in a beginners’ printmaking class in my second or third year of college, so 1991. We then moved on to linoleum. Coming from a graphic design background, I fell in love with the clean lines, flat shapes and high contrast of block printing. Soon after I discovered a book about Picasso’s series of reduction linocuts from the 1950s and my fate was sealed. I pored over every page and dedicated myself to learning the technique.
Whose style influences you?
Despite Picasso’s influence, my main influence for subject matter was Stuart Davis, a New York painter from the 1920s. He started abstracting on the urban landscape of NY, including bits of signage and lettering.
My early work shows this direct influence…
When I started taking pictures of the Los Angeles urban landscape for photo reference, I began to notice all the cool neon signs and how I liked them ‘as is’ – ie not abstracted. From then on, I challenged myself to go for realism, though not photo-realism… I wanted to fool people from a distance, but I always wanted them to get up close and see that it was a result of flat colours on top of flat colours, to create the illusion. I always want the process to be as much a part of my art as the subject matter.
Your prints hark back to a golden era or a faded era – is there something quite sad in the art of the neon sign…
Well, for me it’s nostalgic, which is a bit different to sad. I’ve never been to Europe, so I don’t really know what neon looks like there, but in the US – especially LA and New York – and other major cities (even tiny towns in middle America) a lot of historic neon is protected and is absolutely spectacular! Night or day.
Ironically, even though I’ve done linocuts of many of these signs – especially in the Los Angeles Broadway Theatre district – most of the time I like signs that show their age, and usually they’re small businesses like liquor stores.
But you’re right, my work is heavily influenced by a Golden Age. In America, the 1950s represented a very hopeful, prosperous time. Mid-century architecture, amazing graphic design, furniture, cars designed like rocket ships – I would’ve loved to be 18 in 1955!
Of course, not everything was perfect, but visually they knew what they were doing. And it’s waaaay better than the homogenised crap that’s turned out today. I’m glad those vintage things are being appreciated again. And if my work can help bring that back, so much the better.
Shadows are key too, aren’t they?
Absolutely shadows are key! In fact, I could drive by a sign at a certain time of day, and it doesn’t do anything for me, but then I could drive by again, usually around dusk, and the shadows cast off the neon tubing create what looks like a different language, and I have to turn my car around and snap a picture. When I start thinking about a new piece, the white of the paper (the first stage of carving the block) is the first thing I consider in the composition, followed by what the shadows are doing. Usually the shadows are the very last thing printed, five or six colours into the piece.
Would it be fair to call you a kind of historian?
Definitely… I realised a long time ago that I’m documenting this city, state and country. So many images that I’ve captured no longer exist. I don’t want to see it all forgotten…
I love what you said once about linocutting being a craft. But do you think printing really actually exists alongside the fine arts?
Haha! Traditional printmaking (not reproductions or digital prints) should have just as much weight as paintings or sculptures in the world of fine art. Now, what fine art is is a whole other discussion. For me personally, the reason I got into reduction linocut was because I was very frustrated by the world of art in the 1990s, and I suppose, up to the present.
In my youth I always knew I wanted to be an artist. I went to any and every art opening, from galleries to museums, taking in what I saw, trying to figure out what my unique contribution would be. Aside from the pioneers of every major movement, I saw a lot of garbage out there. I didn’t understand why skill, talent, and originality no longer mattered any more.
Again, when I discovered Picasso’s reduction linocuts, I knew that this was what I was searching for – a labour-intensive, difficult, lost artform that was going to require my dedication, work ethic, natural artistic ability, and creativity. A process that rivals most paintings or sculptures!
But reduction prints are so tricky, with the registration, number of colours, all that – how long did it take you to master it?
I’ve been doing reduction linocuts for 25 years now and I still wouldn’t say I’ve completely mastered the process, but it took about 15 years to feel like I have the key basics down to do almost any project. Having your own press makes a tremendous difference.
Did you/do you ever do non-reduction linocuts, or are they your sole obsession?
In college I studied all kinds of things – drawing, painting, sculpture, other forms of printmaking. But reduction linocut has pretty much been my sole obsession my whole career. Well, except for cutting up my own prints and doing collages. I’d like to do more of that in the future…
Are there still things you want to try out with the artform?
Larger scale – it’s all about scale! I’m limited by the size of my press – it’s 30”x50”. I’m trying to remedy this by doing diptychs and triptychs, which I like, but to have unlimited access to a massive press would be my dream…
What are you working on at the moment?
A diptych of an old thrashed liquor store sign that says, ‘COLDEST BEER IN TOWN’ (I love the low-brow element), a more hip theatre/music venue, the El Rey Theatre, and a star-shaped sign that says Star-lite.
I’m also starting the drawing of massive triptych of the front end of a 1959 red Cadillac. I usually work on three to five pieces at the same time, and this way I can carve all the stages on one day, print everything in the next couple days, then while the oil-based ink is drying for a couple days, I carve the next stages.
Then, as each piece progresses, I can do drawings and tracings for new pieces. I love that the process has so many different aspects, nothing gets old or routine. I couldn’t just stand in front of an easel all day, doing the same thing.
So what else is new?
I’ve been on Instagram for about a year now, and I’m really enjoying seeing/connecting with all the talented printmakers out there in the world, especially in the UK!
Seriously, most of my faves are Brits. There seems to be a lot of printmaking collectives out there, too, which make it cool to connect with like-minded artists. I’m there as ‘lefner_editions’ and I also have the www.davelefner.com site where I’ll be listing some big events for the Fall.
Finally, are you a genius, or a complete obsessive?
Can’t I be both? I don’t think that’s for me say… though obviously I have to be a bit obsessive. Really, I’m just an artist who found out what he loves to do, trying to enjoy and master the process as best he’s able, and I feel beyond fortunate to make a living at it… that’s all anyone can ask for, right?