By Brian Nixon, Special to ASSIST News Service
KANSAS CITY, MISSIOURI (ANS – September 14, 2017) — Artist Jeff Lefever and I are sitting in the lounge car of the Southwest Chief, the Amtrak train that travels between Lost Angeles and Chicago. We’re about to discuss Jeff’s newest books and artwork when a passenger interrupts us. Over the next hour or so, Jeff and I don’t get a peep in, but we do hear stories how our new friend met his wife, makes movies, and how his leg was healed in a Pentecostal service. We smile, nod, and listen. Jeff imparts some wisdom, and our new friend says, “[explicative] you’re so amazing!” So goes life on a train.
Our new acquaintance did get something right: Jeff — and his artwork — is amazing.
When we arrive in Kansas City our first few days are spent with my family, conducting life as gentleman farmers. We plant potatoes, tend the chickens, and eat homemade meals. When we do finally get time to discuss Jeff’s artwork and books its as we stroll the halls of the Nelson Atkins Museum, one of America’s finest institutions dedicated to art. We soak in the atmosphere, have tea with my wife, Melanie, and peruse the fabulous exhibit space, particularly taken with the photography of Richard Learoyd.
In a way, the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art is a type a sacred space, a building set apart for contemplation and knowledge, an institution founded to promote culture and artistic expression. And like a good museum, these key words—sacred space, contemplation, and expression — are found in Lefever’s vocabulary as well, framing his artistic pursuits with unbridled passion.
Since 2003 Lefever has dedicated his artistic talents to capturing sacred space, both through photography and artwork. He’s travelled the world searching through churches of all ages and scale, gardens, cemeteries, observing people and walking city streets seeking the moment when the daily meets the divine.
While sitting in the Nelson-Atkins Museum, and later through email, Jeff beings to explain how his three books, SCRAP, Flora Glossia, and Instant Icons came about.
I begin this article with his book, SCRAP, photographic images from recycled scrap yards, looking more like abstract paintings than shredded steel. In part two of the article, I’ll concentrate on FloraGlossia. In part three I’ll concentrate on Instant Icons.
It seems to me that in SCRAP you give dignity to the obsolete. In the case of SCRAP, metals stripped down and separated for resale through the recycle industry. What were some influences that prompted you toward this art series?
“I have been a witness to much homelessness in my travels through Europe and the United States,” Jeff begins, “and it has affected me over time. I can relate to the vulnerability of the homeless. In my passion for creating art over making money, I have too often sacrificed my living stability. Because of the unsecured future this creates in my life, I have developed empathy for the homeless and for that condition in general. I have interviewed many people living the streets, given money for their story and a chance to photograph them. Regardless if the stories shared with me are legit or not, the level of living they embark murmurs in my subconscious. It boils down to this: the horror of being alone and without sustenance in this world surfaces painfully in me from time to time. Witnessing and feeling this has its affect. This is the human, sociological side of SCRAP.”
So if SCRAP was influenced by how the world views things disposable—especially people, what does this tell us about our Western culture?
“It seems to me that a general malaise of our Western culture is the pursuit of the material over the spiritual. Broad brushing here, and in my opinion, our ‘West’ has become too competitive, derisive, divisive, polemic, mistrusting, consumptive, too oriented to the seemingly ‘better’ version of anything and too hinged on personal and corporate profit motive. The attitude of one’s entitlement of the ‘good life’ reinforced, if not originating through advertising media, doesn’t foster compassion. In summary, our Western culture is empty of empathy.
“There is a lot of active voicing for community, sustainability, long term investment, recognition of spiritual values in life, yet our culture operates far from such ideals. It is more talk, like I am doing here. Morality is not an attractive social ideal. Morality as a cultural value appears annexed to an individual personal feeling. I am not citing anything new.
“Poor people — the elderly in particular — have become a burden to some extent, even a liability. With a diminishing middle class in the U.S., the percentage of poor is growing. I am not sure how the future will play out, to be honest, but this will be a huge stress on our nation’s infrastructure.
“I think some our lack of empathy and compassion stems from the fact that we are fed far too much entertainment; news has become entertainment as has our politics. There is too much false information and simulacra. And if you ask me, none of this current ideology serves to support real social and cultural values or paradigms of human spirituality.
“Furthermore, the push of changing technologies contributes to our becoming disembodied agents of exchange. There are plenty of studies on this topic urging people to unplug. It appears that our short-sited culture is like a straw house, built on sand. We are a society of addicts. People, the things we create to be useful, and even communities—are becoming too easily disposable, disregarded when their purpose is no longer favored.”
In a way, SCRAP may be about isolation, then? Would you agree?
“My previous answer which, regrettably, sounds more like a rant is a root to alienation, surely. Isolation has been a thread through a lot of my work. However isolation isn’t a direct association to SCRAP, nor is it the actual creative trigger. It is important to note that those things I just mentioned are ground for the trigger idea. The idea for SCRAP wasn’t born in a vacuum.”
Since the homeless, the poor, the elderly and our Western paradigm is fertile ground to the trigger idea, what was the actual trigger moment that blossomed into SCRAP?
“The particular moment where the idea for SCRAP stemmed was when I first noticed two particular photographs of mine presented side by side. One was a photo I had shot of the Pieta of San Lorenzo Maggiore in Milan Italy, and the other was a picture I had taken of a bale of cables while on commercial assignment for AtoZ Metals in Costa Mesa, California. The two photos side by side looked very similar in compositional movement and texture but became an interest to me in the juxtaposition of their contextual ideas.”
Expand more on this idea of juxtaposition.
“The first image I had photographed was of a dead Christ. Biblically, we know that Christ rises, proclaiming defeat over death, providing the hope of a resurrected life. The risen Christ presents redemption, and even now, offers hope in the present to all who believe. The other image I photographed was of metal cables at the end of their life. The role the cables served was past; their usefulness was over. The thick stranded metal sat lifeless, to be sold by the ton as raw material, smelted down and repurposed for new usefulness as something else.
“The bridge — or juxtaposition — between these two images is what I understood in their narratives. Both are pictured in their dead state. Both will have a new life and a new purpose.”
Nice parallel. There’s almost an allegorical or literary quality to your interpretation. Would you agree?
“I do agree. I felt challenged to see if by an allegorical method I could link SCRAP to the Christian promise of the resurrection life. Knowing the melted metal cables would be purified by fire is a parallel to the refining of our souls, ‘burning away the chaff’—if you will. It is intriguing.”
In a way, then, SCRAP is about rebirth.
“Yes, there is a parallel between resurrection to an afterlife and rebirth in this life. Both are about transformation—the immediacy of something dead being brought to life, literally and figuratively. This transformation gets played out in the process of making the final SCRAP limited edition prints. The creative project has a built-in allegorical viewpoint, a context of hope that alludes to a new life. Making the leap to the spiritual from the material can be seen in SCRAP, but it requires the viewer to think in those terms.”
From an artistic — non-allegorical sense, what informed the working process of SCRAP?
“There is a rationale behind the working process and that informed my perspective. It is a creative intention that informs the entire project process from how I saw the scrap at the recycle centers to the physical output of the prints as alchemy (the metamorphous of an object).
The photographs represent a transformative process, and in fact are the transformation: from being scrap material sitting in heaps at an asphalt yard — to finding new life as a composed photograph, and further becoming something of more value as an art object.
“The challenge to myself was if I could take loose and chaotic piles of stripped metal, discarded broken products, crushed packaging, and abandoned appliances, and with only a change of perspective through my camera lens, poetically compose and re-present all of that in the form of a picture. Could I convert the disregarded to something interesting and beautiful to behold?”
“SCRAP has several layers of complexity that allow for different interpretation and discovery. As a result, this offers different ways to appreciate the photographs. It is because of its layers of context that I like this series so much.
Unpack a tad more the contextual layers.
“Gladly. We already discussed the social and spiritual level. But another layer is philosophical. Though my work is nowhere as profoundly clever, or philosophically anti-linguistic as the work of surrealist painter, Renee Magritte, SCRAP does superficially borrow from Magritte’s masterpiece, The Treachery of Images (Ceci n’est pas une pipe). My takeaway from Magritte’s canvas is an oversimplification of his very involved and brilliant work. In his Treachery of Images…, Magritte challenges linguistic forms, subverting the recognize-ability of familiar images and disrupts our ways of perceiving. He undermines the metaphysical connection between words and things as assumed by Plato. SCRAP is none of that, not disruptive, not ironic, not intentionally absurd and it doesn’t touch on linguistics.
“What I gleaned from this Magritte canvas was the obvious; that the painting of the pipe was a painting, and not a pipe. Likewise, the images in SCRAP are not the twisted metal. One wouldn’t usually say this is a photograph when describing what they see, they would first tend to say it is what they see depicted in the photo, “look at that shoe; that car; or that pipe”, or at best say, “look at that picture of…”, as if that thing pictured is represented factually by the photo.
“If we deconstruct this further with a modernist thought that the materiality of the thing is the thing, then the SCRAP artworks are simply images derived from photons on a digital camera sensor and converted to ink on paper. Light pixels to ink dots: the subject matter is secondary to the material. Or rather, SCRAP artworks are photographs and indeed not compacted bales or loose piles of metal, though we might too easily identify them as such. It is really subtle.”
Can you break the totality of this down simply for our readers?
“l’ll try. One way of thinking about the metaphysical-physical comparison found in the SCRAP images is that the pictures in the SCRAP series serve more accurately as a representation of an idea: a metaphor for spiritual transformation.
In the case of SCRAP: the final artwork as a fine art print is redemptive of something that was failed and broken. That something now transformed is revalued with new life. In SCRAP the final art object redeems the lost and castaway by becoming a new object of value, still keeping its identification with the discarded metals. This is most apparent in the fine art prints than it is with the books”
In SCRAP, there seems to be the simple enjoyment of the photograph as a non-objective image?
“I find that so. With my background in illustration and fine art painting, the compositions of SCRAP have a relaxed relationship to nonobjective painting grounded in compositional formalism. The overall result gives the photographs order and beauty. I find it works well when people enjoy the pictorial arrangements in and of themselves; no spiritual and philosophical speculation. Despite all we talked about regarding layers and context, a simple graphic beauty is intentional. In fact, it is part of the narrative of redemption: being made beautifully anew.”
For more information on SCRAP, click here: http://www.blurb.com/user/lefever and http://www.blurb.com/b/8132119-scrap-catalog-one and http://www.blurb.com/b/8132065-scrap-ii-catalog-two
Part 2 of my interview with artist, Jeff Lefever, will be on his work, Flora Glossia.
Photo captions: 1) Artist, Jeff Lefever by Marta Szczerba. 2) SCRAP: 2 by Jeff Lefever. 3) SCRAP: 4 by Jeff Lefever. 4) SCRAP: 5 by Jeff Lefever. 5) SCRAP: 6 by Jeff Lefever. 6) Brian Nixon.
About the writer: Brian Nixon is a writer, musician, artist, and minister. He’s a graduate of California State University, Stanislaus (BA), Veritas Evangelical Seminary (MA), and is a Fellow at Oxford Graduate School (D.Phil.). To learn more, click here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brian_Nixon
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