Worth a thousand notes

New music-inspired exhibit jazzes up Austin’s Central Library

New music-inspired exhibit jazzes up Austin’s Central Library

Artist Kel Brown stands next to a large abstract painting featuring bright colors and organic forms.
Artist Kel Brown likens visual art to music production in building layers and finding rhythms. Photo courtesy of Kel Brown

Another year begins, and another cultural connection is made by the Austin Public Library, one of Austin’s most regular supporters of local culture. This time, it deals with rhythm — of street art, hip-hop, jazz, and punk — as Austin painter and muralist Kel Brown feels it. According to Brown, it’s about “maintaining inner peace in times of chaos.”

The Central Library’s most recent offering to visitors, which just opened, is the new “Ataraxia” exhibit, a collection pursuing harmony through 28 abstract paintings and one drawing (“I’m not going to tell you which one it is. You have to figure it out,” says Brown). All the works were made since late 2021 specifically for the exhibit, and they’ll fill the Main Gallery on the second floor previously inhabited by “Outpost” by Sarah Welch, a much earthier, monochromatic installation.

“I paint very quickly,” says Brown of the volume of work going into the library. “Once you see all the work — stacks not yet hung on the walls — it’s kind of daunting. I didn’t realize I made this much work … but it didn’t feel rushed or anything.”

Brown’s work is abstract and full of color and movement. At a glance, it reads like textiles, but the artist redefines his conscious interest as one in patterns rather than fabrics. Much of his work could be divided into tiles of rhyming but not identical patterns, often permuted in different hues, sizes, or angles. Some works verge on austere, laying out monochrome patterns like hieroglyphs waiting to be deciphered. Others explode in wiggly, blunt, and spiraling chaos.

“I like patterns, but I like broken-up patterns,” says Brown. “I do like repetition, but it’s got to be not super repetitive to where you think a robot made it, but more like a human style of repetition.”

The artist — unsurprisingly, a fan of the late producer J Dilla, who was known for playing beats with a charming human error instead of over-programming them — likens the repetition process to beat making. He cites his twin brother Josh Brown’s creative process as Falling Awake Sound Therapy, trying to find a rhythm through laying down one layer at a time. In a video for social media, Brown paints tiny lines and fluid curves in quick rhythmic step with a song by the Wu-Tang Clan, demonstrating how the music can almost appear in paint.

The twins have collaborated before, Josh DJing Kel’s art shows, and Kel providing art for some of Josh’s records. Raised in Houston, they both received a certain meticulousness from their mother, who kept a dictionary on the coffee table and sent her sons to look up words instead of explaining what she meant. (Brown also collaborated with his girlfriend, Liz Hudson, on a painting for the exhibit titled “Therapeutic for the Culture.”)

This dictionary nostalgia inspired the name of the new exhibit, “Ataraxia,” which Oxford Languages defines as “a state of serene calmness.” Brown chose the name in juxtaposition to the way he currently perceives the world, hoping that audiences will read it sincerely, instead of ironically. They should walk away, he says, feeling that the exhibit was ataraxic.

Abstract art often has the power to be immersive simply by the space it takes for a viewer to decide what associations they come up with and how the work makes them feel. In Brown’s case, he also hopes he has imbued the art with the same feeling he experienced while making it.

“Regardless of what was going on outside of the studio, I was always going in … with the mindset of not being necessarily bothered by [the] real world,” says Brown.

The works won’t be for sale at the library, but potential buyers may send Brown messages via email or social media.

“Ideally, I don’t want to come home with anything,” he says.

“Ataraxia” will remain up on the second floor of the Central Library on West Cesar Chavez Street until April 16. It is free to view. For more information, visit library.austintexas.gov.