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See This Austin Art: A 'Happy Family' of quirky birds at Flatbed Press

Michael Barnes
Austin 360
Detail of John Alexander's print, "Happy Family," which can be seen at Flatbed Press.

Up close, what you notice first are the smudged charcoal strokes that approximate the appearance of feathers, greenery or movement. You also spy the blank spots between the charcoal remnants that suggest not only the natural color patterns of the 21 birds, but also the contours of the wings, shoulders, cheeks, eyes and beaks.

John Alexander’s print, “Happy Family,” taken from a charcoal drawing, ushers in a wintry feeling. His gathered birds perch on bare, thorny twigs. They don’t interact. Most are seen in profile. Despite being posed in an odd caucus, the birds are alert and their individual temperaments help make this a fascinating work of art.

We’ll come back to that.

You’ll find “Happy Family” at Flatbed Press as part of a print show, “2020 Hindsight: New Publications from Flatbed Press,” all made on the premises, and almost all made during the pandemic.

I could find no common visual thread among them, but there are inescapable affinities. Melissa Miller offers a thin, horizontal view of a beachfront with shorebirds, livestock and dogs cavorting around apocalyptic heaps of debris. That relates well to another Alexander print, “Ship of Fools.” Here, ludicrous characters in carnival masks crowd into a sinking vessel that echoes the allegory from Plato’s “Republic.”

Both fit easily into a plague sensibility.

Other highlights of the show include a series from Michael Ray Charles of bunched roses arranged with the busts of Black children. Previously seen at the Umlauf Sculpture Garden and Museum in 2019, the prints extend his decades-long project that explores racial stereotypes and concepts of beauty.

Flatbed Press is among Austin’s premier arts treasures, but perhaps because it is organized as a for-profit company, unlike the vast majority of arts groups, it has sometimes felt like an outlier. Katherine Brimberry, along with former business partner Mark L. Smith — both Austin Arts Hall of Fame inductees — started the enterprise in 1989 in a former industrial zone across the railroad tracks from the Seaholm Power Plant in southwestern downtown.

When that neighborhood began to change, they moved to another former industrial zone in East Austin. From 1999 to 2019, their expansive former warehouse became a gathering place for the arts community, with a gallery, shop, offices and multiple studio spaces rented out to artists and groups.

You can guess the end of that chapter, if you don’t already know it, as gentrification forced Brimberry to a still-active industrial zone off Burleson Road. The current segmented space is a tidy zoo of printmaking tools and machines that allow the visitor see exactly how the prints that hang in the gallery and shop, along with others in their back catalogue, are made.

Brimberry is extraordinarily generous with her time and skills, so the best artists and makers, not only from Texas, but from around the country, flock to Flatbed.

Alexander, for instance, is a New York-based painter who grew up in Beaumont and maintains ties with the land, plants and animals of Southeast Texas. Brimberry, who has worked with Alexander on the printmaking end of his art since 2001, likes to point out his subjects’ quirky human characteristics.

Alexander began “Happy Family” by drawing with charcoal on white paper. He and Brimberry chose a specialty paper for the print run of 40, then employed a light-sensitive, photo-polymer plate to make what are essentially etchings. Beforehand, they agreed to hand-dye the paper with tea, a method often used to give materials the look of age and depth.

She showed me the process in action, which includes a boxy machine like an X-ray station that emits ultraviolet light; an Epson printer the size and shape of a small musical organ; a Macbook Air laptop; and a well-worn notebook. I don’t pretend to understand it all, yet another light bulb went off when Brimberry answered a question about the texture of the white paper that Alexander originally used: It had to be absolutely smooth or else the background textures would show up in the prints.

I spent more alone time with “Happy Family.” When I had first glanced at the image online, I noted right away that they these were not “birds of a feather.” Crows, ravens, jays and magpies — each represented here, if I’m not mistaken — are part of the corvidae family of birds, but not kingfishers, cardinals or what look like to me an oriole, sparrow and titmouse. Also, the birds are not drawn to scale: A real raven or even a crow is much larger than a real cardinal, for instance.

Additionally, in nature, these species would not flock together. So Alexander is up to something other than naturalism or mere guidebook accuracy.

On one level, one can enjoy the rhythmically spaced shapes, the incredible skill of the charcoal strokes, the vivacity of the individual birds. Yet those elements alone don’t explain my ardent response to this grouping. Could it be because a lot of us have spent big parts of the pandemic safely birding? Or perhaps this gathering reminds me of those informal families collected together at safe distances in the time of COVID — as well as social and economic severance — separate, yes, but somehow still together.

Flatbed Press is open to a limited number of customers at a time at 3701 Drossett Drive. flatbed-press.com, 512-477-9328. Call to make an appointment.

About this series

You Gotta See This is a recurring series about art around Austin that we think deserves a look.