The Joy of Neon
For many of us, Canter's Deli stands as a cultural and gustatory icon, beckoning with its pastrami, its hefty helpings of nostalgia and its bustling feeling of being "back East." For Los Angeles artist Dave Lefner, the deli was a magnet for an entirely different reason: all that neon.
Lefner creates beautiful, soft-hued prints of vintage neon signs, using a reduction linocut technique refined by Picasso. Canter's was an early inspiration. "When I first started making art 25 years ago, I'd make pilgrimages to Canter's," he said. "It's got everything you want. Great '50s fonts, a cheerful neon chef. It's basically a mecca for neon lovers."
People may think of neon as a nighttime affair, but Lefner photographs signs at dawn and dusk, when shadows are longest. From these photos, he creates a charcoal drawing, which he then flips and rubs onto a block of linoleum to transfer the image.
To make the print, he carves into the linoleum using sharp metal cutters called gouges, rolls on oil-based ink, and prints onto paper using a press. He does a new set of cuts for each color. It's a painstaking process, labor-intensive and risky; one slip of the linoleum knife and the pending image is ruined.
He discovered the possibilities of linoleum in a book of Picasso's single-block linocuts from the 1950s. "This changed my world entirely," he said. "Everyone is familiar with the one-color woodcut, but Picasso was doing these beautiful, complicated, multicolor images with linoleum."
Lefner's subject matter is different, but the process is basically the same. Los Angeles' super sunny skies make the city ideal for scouting neon signs and long shadows. Los Angeles is also home to the nation's first neon signs. After French chemist George Claude discovered the illuminating power of neon gas in glass in the early 1900s, he sold the first two neon signs in the United States to the L.A.-based Packard car dealership, in 1923.
"You put it on the wall, and people are forced to see the beauty, even of the rust." — Dave Lefner
By the 1950s, neon signs glowed across the city. Lefner loves the popular typefaces of the '50s and '60s, their hope and exuberance. He's done prints of the Palace Theatre and the Orpheum, both once vaudeville houses, but the majority of neon signs radiate humbler American dreams. "Of course we think of theaters, but mostly it's these little mom-and-pop stores: liquor, lodging or dry cleaning that fascinates me," Lefner said. "Neon is so bright. It's alive. It's a gas."
At his living/work loft space in the Brewery Arts complex, one wall is covered with his work. There's a pale-blue star with the words "Blue Skies" hanging near an aqua print reading "Liquid JOY," the "Y" a martini glass containing a green olive. The word "DONUTS" is spelled out in one print, each letter in an image of a doughnut. There's a red-and-white "Star Lite," the "BEST BEER IN TOWN," and, of course, the black, white and yellow "Canter's."
The work makes you take another look at the visual landscape you drive by — or sit in traffic next to — daily. As Lefner explained, "You put it on the wall, and people are forced to see the beauty, even of the rust."
It's also grounding to see someone care so much about hulking hunks of metal and glass that have been standing tall for half a century. In today's instant-everything culture, many people have such low expectations for objects. People wear "fast fashion" clothes then toss them after three launderings. People adore their cellphones, yet shop for their replacements while still getting to know them. People live in an anxiety-making cycle of shopping and shucking that makes our relationship with personal objects short-lived and superficial. Lefner's exacting craftsmanship is uplifting itself. He gives his delicate, refined works as long as necessary to get them right. You can see the results in the prints.
He's currently working on a series about expressing the eternal "yes," loosely based on an idea in E.M. Forster's novel "A Room With a View." He's also still hunting for new signs and revisiting old ones such as Canter's. "I have lots of pictures of the place, but I still haven't captured it exactly the way I want. Maybe another trip—and another print—is needed."
Wendy Paris is a writer living in Los Angeles and the author of the book Splitopia.
The year was 1992, and Dave Lefner was into his second year of college at Cal State Northridge. He had just discovered printmaking, an artistic soul mate that would stand the test of time, but for now it was the red hot “I have to have you now” kind of thing and the presses at school were all busy. So Dave improvised. He had his linoleum canvas carved into his vision – an abstracted street scene featuring a traffic light and liquor store sign. Now he needed pressure. He thought, “What is the heaviest thing I own that rolls?” That would be the “Green Bomb,” a classic 1972 Oldsmobile. Dave positioned his carved linoleum behind the back wheel, carefully placed a piece of Masonite over it and hopped into the driver’s seat. Slowly he backed up, and then rolled forward. It was a crude way of doing it, but Lefner had just made his first linocut print. It was the beginning of a long love affair.
Lefner always knew he was going to be an artist. He has a drawing tacked up on his refrigerator that he did when he was in first grade. It shows an artist at an easel, even sporting a French beret, with a caption reading “Someday I will be an artist. I will paint a lot of pictures.” “It was my first self-portrait,” Lefner laughs. He may have known what he wanted to be when he grew up, but he still had a lot of growing up to do. Born and raised in Los Angeles, in the San Fernando Valley, Lefner had a traditional suburban childhood. He went to Crespi, a Catholic all-boys prep school, where the focus was on academics and football. Lefner was a wide receiver on the 1986 Divison 1 championship team, which in a state as large as California, is no small accomplishment. Lefner admits most of his high school life was centered on football, and that high testosterone culture wasn’t exactly a Petri dish of support for a budding art career. “No, it wasn’t cultivated in high school,” Lefner remembers. “But I always had the ability to draw. I would do caricatures of the coaches and things like that.”
Once he got to college and was free from the pressure of high school expectations, Lefner began pursuing his art ambitions. His first declared major was graphic design because “it sounded like a real job,” then illustration, before finally discovering wood block printing. “There is such a craft to it. I love the flat colors and the graphic nature of it,” he says. But there was one more step in his search for artistic identity. “I discovered Picasso’s linoleum block series done in the 1950’s – reduction linocuts. That process was exactly what I was looking for.”
Reduction linocuts take woodblock prints a step further. The artist carves as he goes – carves, prints, carves some more, and prints – continuing on until the image is finished. How many cycles depends on how many colors the artist wants to include. When the print is finished, there is nothing left of the linoleum block – it has all been carved away. In fact, Dave keeps a big box full of thin linoleum strips underneath his worktable. Everything he did in 2008 is represented by what is left over. Edition sizes are protected because there is no possible way to go back in the future and reprint. The artist gets one shot to get it right. “The more I did it, the more I loved the idea that it was a mystery,” he says. “You have an idea of what you want in the end, but because it’s reversed and the image is backward and you are printing color stages you don’t really know what you are going to get in the end.” It is sometimes called the suicide method because one carving mistake even at a late stage and the whole print is ruined. Lefner loves the challenge.
For the last ten years Lefner has lived at the Brewery, which is touted as the “world’s largest artist community” – 300 lofts where artists live and work in downtown L.A. “I did think when I moved in ten years ago that it would be like the Cedar Bar in New York City. We’d be getting into fist fights arguing about aesthetics and abstract paintings,” he laughs. “It’s not like New York in the 1950’s, but its still a good energy.”
Lefner’s loft is big – two thousand square feet split between living and workspace, and every inch reflects the artist’s tastes and inspirations. It’s a visual carnival of color, texture and messaging. Artwork fills the walls, museum exhibition banners hang from the twenty-foot ceilings, and even the concrete floor is stenciled with words like beauty, truth, love, and the full American Heritage Dictionary definition of art. The kitchen area, which looks like a throwback to the 1950’s complete with black and white checkered floor and vintage refrigerator covered with cards, pictures and magnets, is separated from the living area by old windows suspended and arranged in a way that gives the illusion of a wall that doesn’t exist. The studio is located in the back half of the loft. An old, tired window air conditioner is stuffed in the bottom part of a large window, but a fan sits right next to it – a sure sign of lost effectiveness. Lefner’s prized press is pushed up against one wall, while a much smaller 1905 Vandercook proof press, rescued from the recycling bin years ago, is stashed underneath. The Vandercook was Lefner’s first press, which he doesn’t use anymore, but one look around and it’s easy to see that Lefner likes to collect things. On the opposite wall is a large wooden chest with 50 two-inch drawers filled with backward lead letters. Bought at a garage sale from a letterpress artist, it is Lefner’s newest acquisition. “I’ve always been a font nerd,” he says. “Letter press is a lost art form. Not many people do it because it takes a long time. In this day and age it’s all about the immediacy of things.” Maybe for everyone except Dave Lefner.
In many ways, exotic hairstyle aside, Lefner is a throwback – an old soul, with an appreciation for history, especially recent history. “The urban landscape will always be my muse,” he says. As a young artist, driving from The Valley into Hollywood, Lefner would admire the old neon signs. “There were these old mom and pop liquor stores in the valley. People drive by everyday and no one pays attention, but there would be this great neon sign, a little rusted and broken down, but it still casts these amazing shadows at certain times of the day.” Where most people see urban decay, Lefner sees something beautiful. As a night owl, he sleeps during the day, and works through the night with a view of the I-5 freeway through his back window. He loves it.
Dave shares his life and loft with his girlfriend of several years. Shyla is an actress and writer and despite what their chosen professions might suggest, for the most part, the couple stays out of the spotlight, choosing instead to see films in some of L.A.’s historic movie houses where “it feels like the 1920’s,” or enjoy a quiet dinner, sharing the same side of a booth, leaning into each other while reading their respective books. “I know people must look at us and think ‘how nerdy,’ but for us it’s romantic,” Dave laughs. The L.A. club scene just isn’t for them. “My mind set has always been about leaving my mark, so that’s my motivation and focus. Going out and getting drunk just isn’t part of the plan,” Dave explains. As he looks ahead, he wants to work bigger. Right now he is somewhat restricted by the size of his press. He has even researched steamrollers as a possible pressure source, but like the “Green Bomb,” it may be a tad uncontrollable, so better yet, he’d like to be invited to work with Gemini G.E.L., a well known Los Angeles print studio that recently built a giant press for Richard Serra. “I would absolutely love that,” he says. But until that happens, or he figures out another way, Lefner will continue to make prints with the same meticulous attention to detail, process and history that has always been his foundation. “The life of an artist is hard, but I’ve been blessed in the sense that I absolutely love what I do and people have responded. It is a cliché, but it’s true; you don’t choose the life, it chooses you. There is no other alternative for me other than to make art. It’s the way it is.”