By ANTHONY HADEN-GUEST, JAN. 2015
Gregg LeFevre is an artist/photographer. His images, which capture the diverse ways that street life, accident or malice can subvert and/or enrich the artificial dreams of the advertising industry, are now up in that temple of modernism, the lobby of the Four Seasons on Park and 51st organised by the Woodward Gallery on Eldridge Street. And this Boston-born New Yorker has had a curious double career.
LeFevre set out to be a studio artist. He made the New York rounds with his portfolio aged 18. “First I went to see Sidney Janis,” he says, “I brought him a corned beef sandwich because I heard that’s how you got access." Then Janis said to LeFevre, “Listen, kid! There’s three kinds of dealers in this town, there’s dealers who are in business to make money, dealers who are in business to clean up money and dealers who are in business to promote somebody. Their aunts, uncles, son, brother, lover, whatever!”
Janis sent him off to see Lawrence Rubin at Knoedler’s and LeFevre’s circuit ended with Leo Castelli who gave him a glass of red wine. Then he returned to Boston and launched his career. “But I was politicized by the Vietnam war so I had questions about the gallery system,” he says. “I sold quite a few pieces to wealthy people. And part of the deal was that I would go and install the piece and have dinner in the suburbs in nice houses - and the whole thing just didn’t sit well with me.”
As with Jonathan Borofsky and Dennis Oppenheim before him, this visceral dislike for the system took LeFevre to Public art. “If I do Public art I’m doing art for the people. If you make it big in the gallery world your work ends up in a warehouse. My work is to be looked at. And I wanted to speak to issues which in those days were certainly not fashionable.” Since his first public commission, Boston Bricks, downtown in that city, LeFevre has completed over two hundred permanent public art commissions. He now works with a partner, artist Jennifer Andrews, and much of their recent work consists of bronze panels embedded in the paving using texts and images to tell the lost history - through the eyes of women, say - of that specific place.
And his other career? Twenty-five years ago as he was installing his earlier pieces Le Fevre noticed that advertisers in city after city were adopting the practice of installing huge images, often photographs of people, printed on vinyl, in downtown spaces. “I began to take pictures of them,” he says. “It was just amazing how that new movement just burgeoned and was everywhere. It just took off. And I was fascinated by how the landscape was radically transformed in city after city.”
“So I had all these ad campaigns that nobody else took pictures of. And I began to notice that when ads are published in print or appear on-screen, they stay the way they are supposed to be. But when you bring an ad into three dimensions in the real world, that’s another story - even if that third dimension is a sheet of paper. They can be printed wrong, they can overlap in weird ways, different panels don’t read right, they can be hung upside down.”
“Once they’re up the city can damage them, or by contractors. Or by people who perforate them with electric wires or pipes or lights or windows, they get weathered by rain and snow - pigeons crap on them, dogs piss on them. Graffiti people tag them, political people write slogans and crazy people rub stuff out - it’s an object in space. Nowadays they are even stretched around things. So you have some wonderful coincidences, and those kinds of coincidences are what I take pictures of. It’s damaged billboards ... billboards that are weirdly juxtaposed with their neighbors - where two different messages cancel each other out, aged billboards also. Particularly when they get really aged. The sort of pentimenti you get. I am capturing the weird accidents that happen.” Was there a light bulb moment, I asked? When he realized he had found his material? “Yes. Earlier than I had imagined.”
“When I was maybe 17 Lacoste shirts were the only male fashion item that had a logo that was recognizable. Everybody wanted an alligator shirt. In my school if you had an alligator shirt you were hot shit.” He had two. He got his mother to sew the second alligator on the first. This joke did not go down well at all. “It really offended people. They were upset by it,” LeFevre says. "It showed me the power of advertising and branding.”
And the Public art? That continues. Le Fevre’s partner, Jennifer Andrews, as we spoke, was out on one project in Azerbaijan, they have another project outside a new library in Pompano Beach .WM
Anthony Haden-Guest is an internationally known writer and artist.
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