'Books and Parts of Books: 1996-2004'
Austin Museum of Art Downtown, through Aug. 29
Since its inception, collage has thrived in the corners of the art world. From scrapbook pages to fine artworks, thoughtfully constructed mélanges of odds and ends so often turn out worlds greater than the sum of their parts, visually and conceptually. This is especially true of the work of Lance Letscher, an Austin artist whose creations, made with bits of old books, handwritten letters, ledgers, and other manuscripts, garner international acclaim.
For me, Letscher's art is reminiscent of no other artist's. It is eminently identifiable, deeply stamped with his unique process and style. This does not mean that all his pieces look the same; on the contrary, his current retrospective at the Austin Museum of Art is exciting in its breadth and diversity, even within the narrow subheading of "Lance Letscher's collage made with found text after 1996." Using variation of hue, texture, and media, Letscher manages to test the boundaries of the highly specific materials and methods with which he is so closely identified.
Because Letscher's collages are made of found text media, they are bound by the limits of those materials. This is immediately apparent in the aged color palettes of Letscher's work: These are, in the words of the show's curator, "the colors of the past." What's surprising, though, is that through Letscher's outstanding craft, these colors are placed in contexts that lead to new and unusual readings of them. In The Sun, a pencil and found-paper piece, the artist has arranged tiny paper diamonds, aged to different hues of gray-yellow, in a radiating pattern of gradating hues. The bits work together to create a sunburst with all the dynamism of a brightly-colored painting, but here the sense of movement is created by the careful arrangement of the papers, not any hint of bright color. Taken separately, each shard of dull gray is a useless scrap; together, they create the illusion of intense radiation.
Letscher's most familiar pieces are more gaily colored, often featuring pinwheel patterns and series of colored strips, bits of text (handwritten and printed), and nostalgic wallpaperlike patterns. These are the artworks that keep on giving: Depending on your perspective, your distance from the piece, and even your height, they reveal a different combination of treasures at each glance. The 4-foot-long Red Bar is a huge array of tiny, multihued bits of cardboard arranged in columns, with chunks of random-seeming found text ("longevity!," "London time," "bats") embedded in its indexlike corpus. I walked by it several times, both at close range and from a distance, and each time my mind registered wildly different imprints from the piece's miniature stimulations. It's like an art Rorschach; many of Letscher's collages in this style offer this sort of open-ended, continuous conversation. It's no wonder that they're such favorites of collectors.
The numerous faces of Letscher's collage art are visible in AMOA's show, from his series of thickly built-up, industrially stapled landscapes to his more representative figures of book-cover trees and honeycomb skies to his pieces that rely more strongly on drawing for their impact. Each family of work deserves its own commentary, though there's not enough space here to allow for it. Perhaps the most satisfying aspect of the show, though, is the sense of possibility that's derived from witnessing such a specialized art niche unfold into countless forms and patterns, like the fanning out of freshly cut paper chains.