Robert Levers, "Tower of Babel," oil on canvas, 1991. All images courtesy Flatbed Press.

You’re a little off-kilter when you approach the south entrance to the Flatbed Press building and step into its quasi-foyer: something about turning from the exposed exterior concrete stairs to a heavy door with an up-threshold, or maybe it’s the row of massive metal mailboxes floating behind you, beckoning exploration but you can’t, they’re private, which seems confounding and disappointing for just a second. Turn your head and in every direction ahead are doorways to multiple art paths — where to go, what to see?  It’s full immersion, no transition; you lose your body for a moment but your eyes are there, finding curious detail in the rough edges of a legitimately commercial/industrial space. It’s a wonderful way to encounter art.

“War Games: Robert L. Levers,” through Oct. 27, Flatbed Press, 2832 E. MLK Jr. Blvd., flatbedpress.com

I’ve been trying to get the feel in my bones of these art-spaces-we’re-about-to-lose.  They all seem to represent an era when Austin art production exploded and the scene so many of us worked to build finally took its own distinctive shape. It was at the early end of that period, in 1999, when Flatbed began operation in this 18,000-square-foot  warehouse. A year later they finished out spaces beyond their own significant printmaking enterprise, forming a compound for arts non-profits, artist studios and gallery spaces whose rental income helped support the fine art press and its related gallery project. The vision was risky and smart, and its ups-and-downs have invigorated this site and its creative community for going on 20 years.

But back to that physically cacophonous entry space, which right now holds a modest vitrine that literally stops you in your tracks. In it sits a sketchbook, pages open, teeming with figural images. Scanning this week’s open page (they turn the pages every few days so light won’t fade any single drawing), I’m slowed down, lured into focus, engaging with the art before me while the surrounding space fades away.

Yet within a minute or so of this satisfying, got-to-have-it, close looking at fragile pages, memory and association transport me out of Flatbed to the galleries of the Morgan Library in midtown Manhattan. At the Morgan, Old Master works on paper — some in sketchbooks like this — beg entrancement; sepia strokes seduce you to examination of well-observed detail. Human and animal figures rendered with bravura anatomical accuracy frolic and skulk in rhythmic compositions. It’s elemental — ink sinks into paper’s fibers — and the residue of hand and eye in direct communication has meaning.

You know intuitively that these seemingly effortless marks stem from painstaking skill building. Any contemporary eye, any taste for art — whether narrative or abstract, conceptual or performative — can find fascination in image-scenarios such as these, in their fleet touch, their ephemeral—and now achingly historic — gestures.

Same at Flatbed.

The first work you encounter in “War Games: Robert L. Levers” is this Levers sketchbook, begun in 1980 (in New York City, as it happens), brimming with beautifully rendered ideas and narratives. Like the Baroque and Rococo masters that Levers studied early on and throughout his working life, these sketches are fulsome and satisfying, a bookful of peeks into the master’s mind. It’s a catalogue of characters: tending toward flatness in the earliest sketches, its figures become more fully realized as the sketchbook develops.

Robert Levers. “Doin’ the Terrorist Strut,” Soft ground and aquatint etching, 1988.

Esteemed Austin-based artist Melissa Miller—almost a generation younger than Levers but, like him, one of five Texas-based painters vaulted to international attention when featured in the 1984 Venice Biennale exhibition, “Paradise Lost/Paradise Regained”—notes that Levers’ admirably deep knowledge of the human form stemmed from traditional — can we call it classical? — art training, from methodologies that are less popular now, in this age of photo-based imagery. Robert Yarber, another of the then-Texas/Venice Five who shared Levers’ fascination with the Baroque, talked about “the drama of the body in space, almost a spasmodic or hyperkinetic kind of delirious rapture.”

I would suggest we look for that phenomenon here, that we recognize vestiges of it in our own bodies and search for reflections in the works on the wall… or in the vitrine. Levers’ work — this compendium of alternate views of our own selves — is a lesson in empathetic viewing, created way before the term was bandied about so frequently.

Robert Levers, “Four Terrorists Trapped in a Bullring,” Soft-ground etching, 1993 printed

On one level, Bob Levers was a Navy vet who didn’t see action but served during the Korean War and lived, as a pacifist, through Vietnam and the beginnings of the Persian Gulf conflicts. As an artist and teacher — the defining roles of his professional life — Levers took war, chaos and apocalypse as his subject matter; he was drawn to the visceral and dark. And yet, as Peter Mears, who penned the introductory label for the show at Flatbed and curated Levers’ 1991 retrospective exhibition, said, in Bob’s work, “the sinister is always thwarted by the absurd.”

This paradox is a signature of Robert Levers’ work, and it’s an interesting tactic, because it flirts with urgency… and agency, for that matter. How to marry humor to horror in timely critique? Where does humility fit in relation to obscene power?

I went with my son, Dan Zigal, a principal of Party World Rasslin’, the Austin-based performance art collective whose absurdist, mock-violent narratives satirize toxic masculinity, among other contemporary issues, to see Levers’ Flatbed show a second time and try to understand how it might — or might not — resonate today. Credit to my son’s upbringing, he immediately associated Levers’ works with Goya’s “Disasters of War,” and that’s a really apt comparison, both for its graphic experimentation and for the ways Goya’s monstrous allegories personified evil.

But monsters and fear are more subtly depicted in Levers’ work. We probed deeper, Dan noting that the trope of “terrorist” has changed immeasurably in the years since Levers elevated its rendering to an art form. Weaponized now as a ubiquitous sign of racial bigotry and xenophobia, our present-day notions stand in dark contrast to the “terrorists” performing in Levers’ works. Imaginary instruments of mayhem, Levers’ characters aren’t necessarily menacing, they’re hapless, goony, and often no more frightening than a clown.

Robert Levers, “Terrorist Juggling Plates,” soft ground etching, 1990

Take “Terrorist Juggling Plates,” (1990), a soft-ground etching Levers made at Flatbed Press; how can a “terrorist” be so hilarious? Was Levers looking past the assigned costume to the human frailty beneath?  Could we imagine ascribing such humanity to those who haunt our national nightmares now?  Funny how work made in such a different era can raise this important question again.

Indeed, in more than 50 works spanning over four decades, this meandering collection — not an exhibition, strictly speaking, but selections from the artist’s estate on rare public view — presents examples of how Levers explored human consequence.

The nascent vocabulary is all there in 1975 (backdrop: outcome of the Watergate scandal, the fall of Saigon) in the oil painting, “Previously Prepared Positions.” In it we see fragmentary body parts floating in space, marching boots and gas masks resembling elephant snouts, an abstracted ground plane patterned like a game board and, in the distance, surprisingly, a blue sky with rainbow. Surreal and contradictory elements, they’re laid out in tidy fashion, like in a supply locker.  Cartoonish and detached (pardon the pun), the strangely static work suggests the artist’s plumbing of contemporary conventions — the countercultural stylings of Gilbert Shelton, for instance, who was in Austin in the early 1960s as Levers began his teaching career in the art department at the University of Texas.

Yet it also makes me think of video games — the most egregious current form of warfare as entertainment — and about the polarities Dan described to me between “Fortnite’s cartoon world where gun violence is colorful and playful” and “Call of Duty’s what-if scenarios of apocalyptic, endless world war.” Levers’ work can touch both territories, simultaneously. What would Bob think of video games if he’d lived to the present day?

Throughout this run of varied sketches, drawings, prints and paintings that jump in scale and point of view, we see Levers learn to convincingly animate and contort his signature cast: in theatrical arenas, terrorists, soldiers and athletes play twisted roles, as do bystanders too, complicit in activities that seem both alarming and ridiculous.  We can smile now to know that Levers attended the dedication of the LBJ Library in 1971 and witnessed the doubling in size of UT’s football stadium, just down the hill from the art department. In Levers’ madcap farces, representations of both edifices are plumbed for scenes of hypocrisy and over-the-top drama; he relished skewering institutional grandiosity.

Robert Levers, “Victory: The Celebration,” Soft ground etching with drypoint, 1992

Flash forward to “Victory the Celebration” (1991) the last print Levers made at Flatbed Press before his untimely death early the next year. Three ragged soldiers with skeletal heads, one holding a trumpet, are conducted by a military figure. We puzzle at their hyperkinetic movements, then notice puppet strings being pulled from above. Levers’ work comes full circle to Goya again, to straightforward political commentary on the insanity of eternal war, to black-and-cream chiaroscuro whose timelessness echoes the theme. “Victory” is an uncommonly large and beautiful soft-ground etching; don’t miss the apt traces of its production process in an adjunct exhibition that includes the copper plates, the working states and drawings, as well as the final product. You can feel the team at work.

Despite its sobering concerns, there are real pleasures in a show like “War Games.” To recognize its continued relevance and the questions it poses: check. To commemorate a beloved local artist whose work represented this community with distinction well beyond state borders: check.

And there are lots of delightful, oddball moments of discovery, just simple vignettes that carry Bob’s gentle humor alongside his exquisite line. Two of my favorites are “Dehorned Old Satyr” (1990), a sympathetic portrait that resembles some UT professor I just can’t quite identify, and “Don’t Worry About Me—I’ve Got My Gas Mask Right Here,” (1991), whose subject’s disarmingly direct statement and gaze call us to attention: What is happening here?

That’s so Bob.

Robert Levers in his studio, 1991. Photo by Christopher Zaleski.
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