Review: Flatstock 24 at SXSW

As an Austinite, no amount of effort can keep me from being aware of the South by Southwest festival.  It takes over the city for almost two weeks, makes travel impossible, and fills every coffee shop with unkempt hipsters with man-purses and Zach Galifianakis beards. I manage to avoid most of the activities, mainly because I can't see paying thousands of dollars and wasting hundreds of hours listening to obscure bands and watching amateur movies just so I can discover the occasional gem a month before the rest of the nation. I've got to have better ways to spend my time.

Despite the hassles, I do try to work in at least one or two of the free activities at SXSW every year. I was a panelist at the first SXSW Interactive festival and have caught the occasional great band or interesting movie, but I only get involved when I can avoid most of the crowds and cost. This year, despite crowds which were bigger and hipper than ever, my wife convinced me that she could find me the ideal birthday present if we went down to the Flatstock 24 exhibition which was being held in conjunction with SXSW at the Austin Convention Center. It was all about posters and poster art, which draws me like lice to dreadlocks, plus it was free, so how could I resist?

Flatstock is a series of poster conventions held at various locations around the world, including San Francisco, Chicago, Seattle, Hamburg and, of course, Austin. It's not at all like the collectible paper shows I'm used to, which specialize in antique prints and posters. Flatstock focuses on contemporary music and event posters with original art and mostly in limited print runs. It represents a modern revival of the 1960s era of silkscreened show posters which I thought was long gone, but which I was pleasantly surprised to learn is actually enjoying quite a renaissance.

The Flatstock show was not huge, just four aisles of vendors, but the quality on display was outstanding. It was all artists and publishers representing themselves, on the spot and eager to discuss their work and show their wares. Most of the posters were limited editions and silkscreened by hand, overruns from posters done for shows, or special limited editions done for sale. There were a few which were unusual, including one artist whose posters were done with spray paint and stencils and a couple who did high-end offset printed posters.

Some of the vendors were from out of town but a surprisingly large number were from Austin or at least Texas. Stylistically there was a trend towards the macabre and highly stylized art, but also a strong retro thrust, particularly towards variations of the psychedelic style made famous by the Fillmore in San Francisco and the Armadillo here in Austin.

One of the standouts and certainly the vendor from farthest away was Jacknife Posters from Bristol in the UK. They were representing the work of several artists, but their selection was dominated by the work of Chris Hopewell who was also at the show. Hopewell specializes in retro designs, mostly in two styles. He does art nouveau style designs which are clearly influenced by Alphons Mucha, but even more interesting were his posters which featured a retro 1960s exploitation film style with exaggerated scantily-clad women, old cars, guns, and dramatic type selections. Most of those posters were done for the bands Queens of the Stone Age and Dragster. Hopewell's style is kind of an ideal blend of vintage and modern design themes, hearkening back to the styles of earlier eras, but also unique and original. I also found it somewhat endearing that he has a penchant for using my fonts in his more Art Nouveauish designs, including the Mucha-based Moravia font.

Another impressive selection of posters was at Voodoo Catbox which had sprung for an extra-large booth space to house their huge selection of posters. In most of the booths I found great art on posters for bands I'd never heard of or have no interest in, but Voodoo Catbox had very nice posters for roots-rock bands I like a great deal, like Social Distortion, The Knitters, The Blasters, Nick Lowe, The Chieftains, and Los Lobos. In fact, I ended up buying a calavera-style Los Lobos poster there. All of their posters are the work of Gary Houston, who has a unique folk-art style, which shows many of the influences you would expect, but filtered through a personal style rather reminiscent of the woodcut illustrators of the 1930s. Although Houston does a lot of original lettering on his posters he also has good taste in fonts, including using several of my designs prominently, notably Hubbard and Butterfield.

Robert Lee of Methane Studios also had some very interesting posters on display. His modern punk style isn’t really my favorite, but I have to give him a little plug for using my Posada font in several of his posters and also on his logo and business cards. He has good taste in fonts at the very least.

I was also impressed with the work of a local designer named Rob Story. He didn't have business cards or a website or tubes to put posters in or very many posters and he wasn't set up to take credit cards, but he had done some very interesting work for local bands, and one of the few posters I actually bought to take home was his Posada-inspired poster for Chili Cold Blood which happened to make good use of my Posada font, which many of the artists at the show seemed to have a fondness for. He also had a very impressive double-sided poster for Motorhead done in the style of a playing card, and what was probably the best 3-D poster at the show, a triumph considering how downright nauseating most of the attempts at 3-D poster design on display were.

Also not to be missed were Mig Kokinda's spraypaint and stencil posters, Bryan Mercer's dark fantasy-themed posters for what were mostly obscure metal bands, Lindsey Kuhn's extremely vivid psychedelic and punk rock posters, the highly stylized posters of Furturtle Show Prints, and Nick Rhodes' unique and quirky vintage-look show posters.

Some of those exhibiting were more illustrators selling prints than strictly poster artists, but many of them were very talented, including Diana Sudyka whose work is reminiscent of Edward Gorey, the rather twisted Paul Imagine, and Flynn Prejean whose comic-book style art and posters were pretty eye-catching. Of the artists who were more illustrators than poster designers I think my favorite was David D'Andrea whose work reminded me a lot of the macabre illustrators of the 1920s like Harry Clarke, Frank Pape, and John Austin. He also gets points for a creative use of the Rheingold font which is one of my earliest adaptations of antique wood type.

I found it remarkable how high the quality of the poster designs at Flatstock 24 were. I assume the show was juried, but even so it surprised me that there were so many artists working in such a limited field and doing such excellent work. There was a lot of creativity on display and it was interesting to see how different artists brought together diverse poster design traditions and gave them a contemporary spin. I also liked the fact that so much of the stock was for sale and not just on display and that the prices were reasonably low. Prices were mostly based on rarity, but only a few posters I saw were over $100 and many were under $50.

If you live near a town which has a Flatstock show, take the time to check it out. Seeing them all the time, it's sometimes easy to forget that posters aren't just advertising. They can also be outstanding examples of popular art. So buy a few, frame them, and put them on your walls. There's something for every taste, from hip to humor to horror.

Some of our fonts were particularly popular at the Flatstock show. Surprisingly the one we saw getting a lot of use was Rheingold an older font which is past due for an updating. Also popular were Mucha fonts like Moravia, but unquestionably the most used font, which showed up in poster after poster was our Posada font based on the hand lettering of revolutionary period Mexican pamphleteer and charicaturist Jose Guadalupe Posada.

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