Gregg LeFevre is a holdover from the time when Soho was known for its abundance of artists instead of its abundance of retail chains. From his underground studio on Bleecker Street where he is trailed adoringly by his hand-licking dog Tia, LeFevre works on two types of urban projects: site-specific bronze plaques, like the timeline embedded in the sidewalk of Union Square, and large-scale photography of outdoor billboards and posters that have been defaced. The bronze work for which he is best known is commissioned by city agencies and community groups to educate pedestrians. His more recent photography is a creative attempt to understand how city dwellers interact with the commercial imagery around them.
It is not surprising that LeFevre finds his own projects more gratifying, even if they’re professionally riskier than public art commissions. “If you’re selling work through galleries it’s a much more limited audience,” he says. “You’re speaking to professionals and curators and critics. They’re usually a lot more aware of the current philosophy in the art world. It’s good because you can have a real dialogue, but it’s bad because if the dialogue you want to have is not particularly in fashion at the moment, then you’re in trouble. Out of sheer luck, what I happen to be doing… is acceptable.”
The son of a runaway father who spent 10 years at sea before meeting his Air Force pilot wife, LeFevre has the mild, withdrawn manner of a philosopher or a schoolteacher — not surprising, as he graduated with a philosophy major from Boston University in the summer of 1969 and served as a high-school teacher in the South Bronx for six years. Or perhaps it’s because a steady business of bronze art installations provides him with a niche devoid of competition (there are no other artists, to his knowledge, who etch these plaques). Maybe, though, it is because with the precision involved in bronze work, one has to be patient. In another time LeFevre could have been a scribe, immortalizing the ideas and stories of an ancient civilization with reeds on papyrus.
His current photo project, which is compelling not just for its aesthetic but also for its message, hints at LeFevre’s comparatively less tranquil past as a political activist. “I think there’s a reaction,” he says. “We all suffer from wanting to be fashionable through advertising. Even if you’re against it, in all kinds of subtle ways you’re affected by it, and I think it’s a reaction to that, saying, screw you, I’m not gonna diet and be perfect. And not only am I not gonna be that, I’m gonna mess up the images that are that.”
Not all of the distorted images that LeFevre captures are politically motivated though. For every group that destroys the ads of a company using child labor in the Far East, someone else is keying the eyes out of a movie poster. Whatever the incentive, the result is an image that defies its original intention. “You have an intrusion of large scale figurative photography into the city with billboards and posters and so on, and it’s ubiquitous,” he says. “I mean it’s really everywhere, and it’s designed to change the city in a sense to get you to buy or think or look a certain way, and then the city has an effect on these billboards, and that’s what I’m interested in, the dialogue that the city and its people have with these photographs.”
The dialogue to which LeFevre refers is considered vandalism in the eyes of the law, but sometimes irreverence is what gets art noticed. “I think graffiti’s really tricky,” LeFevre reasons, ”because on the one hand if you really condone it and say graffiti’s ok, anybody can do anything anywhere, it’s a really yucky looking city. At the same time there are some really gifted graffiti artists whose work you wouldn’t see if they couldn’t do what they did.” Yet he draws a line between committing an act of vandalism himself and photographing it. “If I can destroy one billboard then somebody else can destroy a billboard for a cause that I like.”
As to whether a link exists between his earlier bronze work and current photography, LeFevre speculates, “Part of me thinks it’s two completely separate consciousnesses, but obviously they’re not. I’m the same person.” The art also exists on the same New York streets, and in both cases the work is only complete when it is worn down, scraped or pounded. “Foot traffic tends to brighten and polish things, so I designed [the bronze plaques] with the thought that the parts I want to be bright over time, which might not be the most logical parts… would be raised.”
The most prominent aspect of LeFevre’s work is not the medium or its utilization, however, but the unassuming accessibility of the art itself. When LeFevre observes the way people interact with his pieces, he notices, “What’s interesting is, if something is underfoot it’s not art, so people are not precious about it. If they’re in a museum or in a window of a museum or a window of a gallery, it’s art, and most people are intimidated by art, they don’t think about it, so they just kind of write it off. But if it’s bronze in the pavement, then what is it? And then it’s much more accessible and they will look at it. And also, because it’s underfoot, people tend to stop next to each other, they tend to converse about it, because it’s not a normal social constellation.”
There is no entrance fee for plaques on the ground or the outdoor advertising all around us, and nothing to separate the viewers from the art or from each other. It is accessible 24 hours a day by all New Yorkers, and at the same time is something we very often walk by without giving it a second glance. “If you can bring people together,” LeFevre shrugs, “then that’s great.”