If you’ve lived in Austin long enough, the places Drew Liverman has been drawing lately will likely bring a smile of recognition to your face. Sam’s BBQ, Segovia Produce, Estrada’s Cleaners & Tuxedo Rental, and the artist’s other recent subjects have all been in Austin since long before the city became synonymous with cool.
“Premember” — Liverman’s ongoing online exhibition with Northern-Southern — captures storefronts on Austin’s eastside in a series of breezy, brightly-colored mixed media drawings on paper. The pieces are executed in Liverman’s delightfully loose but impeccably observed style, and pay tribute to the small businesses around the area where the artist has lived, worked, and kept a studio for more than a decade.
For those of us who have stayed inside for most of the year, Liverman’s cheery glimpses of long-time Austin spots offer a refreshing reminder of the city we inhabit, but haven’t fully lived in lately. The drawings also unexpectedly reflect the changing realities of Austin’s eastside, where issues around race, gentrification, culture, and architecture have clashed in recent years.
Before this project, Liverman channeled a modern day Bonnard. The young father and artist spent the first months of quarantine drawing warm, richly-patterned domestic scenes inside his home. His move from indoors to out followed a rather literal path — Liverman made a series of drawings and paintings of his front door — though the artist attributes the shift to feelings of cabin fever and to new, nocturnal studio hours.
After a period of drawing night scenes in his neighborhood, Liverman’s attention landed on the local businesses nearby, which he says took on a different dimension as the pandemic’s economic ramifications loomed.
“It’s not that the places I’ve been drawing are necessarily in any financial trouble,” he told me on a recent Zoom call, “but they’re places I’ve seen around for a very long time and don’t really know a whole lot about.”
“Premember” is Liverman’s portrait of these “familiar strangers,” as he calls them.
Drawing from architecture can make for some dull pictures, but, as with his more familiar subjects, Liverman manages to depict these storefronts with liveliness and a touch of fun. Part of the dynamism comes from the mix of materials that he uses, which includes ink, crayon, color pencil, collage, and correction tape. Liverman has used these “grocery store” materials for a while, but he introduced more collage into his practice after crafting with cut construction paper with his daughter during quarantine.
These humble materials and the wonky, torn edges on some of Liverman’s drawings seem to echo the charming, homegrown aesthetics of the storefronts that the artist depicts, though he insists that this isn’t too intentional.
“I’m interested in the loud colors and the weird design decisions on their facades,” he explained. “It’s a good deviation from the super new, clean, modern, minimalist-type of architecture that’s trendy now and keeps popping up on the eastside.”
The artist’s comment highlights what I see as the subtext of these works: they celebrate and memorialize an Austin that’s either been lost, or isn’t long for this world. These storefronts have existed for at least a couple of decades, meaning that they predate the futile search for stasis of the “Keep Austin Weird” years, and the flurry of change that’s followed. Liverman affirms that he’s “trying to capture that fading, funky aspect of Austin,” but also emphasizes that he doesn’t think that he’ll ever feel like a Texan. (He moved to Austin 15 years ago.)
Liverman moved around a lot as a child, “So I didn’t ever really feel like a native anything,” he told me. He’s lived on the eastside for years, but the area’s rapid, recent transformations sometimes makes him feel like a stranger.
The sentiment reminds me of the big questions Austin has faced in recent years as it grows and changes at breakneck speed: Who is really ‘from’ here? Who belongs? Who gets to decide what the city is, and what it’s going to be?
Another element in the work is that Liverman’s drawings are of Black- and Latinx-owned establishments that cater to Black and Latinx clientele. As he explained, Liverman, who is White, doesn’t necessarily frequent these barbershops, restaurants, and other spots despite their proximity to his home. The social activism of this past summer has drawn new attention to Austin’s demographic issues, which are long-running, complex, and often related to gentrification. With “Premember,” the artist — unwittingly, perhaps — inserts himself into this timely conversation.
“In the process of capturing these places, I became more aware of how disconnected I am to a lot of businesses around town,” the artist said, “And part of that is the distance from that community.”
Liverman told me that in his eyes, art has very little power as an agent of social change.
While it may be impossible for one drawing or one artist to make a significant impact on a situation as multidimensional as the one Austin is currently in, the act of looking requires a heightened state of observation that, ideally, brings a sense of awareness. And a process that takes even more focus than looking at something is drawing it.
“Premember” is an ongoing online exhibition on view on Northern Souther’s website.