An artist can burst into your awareness in a moment, a single flash, when you turn the corner in a gallery and come face to face with something fantastic. Or, more typically, they tiptoe gradually into your brain and quietly pitch a tent in a dim corner and go to work.
Artist Hebru Brantley caught my attention in stages.
First there was the work, appropriately. His Fly Boys and Fly Girls, in bright shades of red and blue and black, if black can be "bright," or at least "glossy," set out last summer on the plaza south of Tribune Tower. When I bumbled across them I assumed they were some kind of manga cartoon character convention. They looked vaguely Japanese, they had a certain tilt to them, a hesitation, almost a shamefacedness, as if about to dip their heads and say, "Hai!"
Then I noticed a few Chicago style stories on Brantley, the sort of "hip-hop tagger does well" panegyric you see in Chicago magazine and Splash, and realized he wasn't cartooning in Tokyo, but working right here, in Chicago. Maybe it's provincial of me, but it mattered that he was here, in a loft in Pilsen. Call it the Ed Paschke effect.
Another outdoor installation by the Field Museum was vandalized a few weeks ago by goons. Maybe that sparked the sympathy necessary to draw an artist closer to you, the backstory of the snubs that the fancy, trained French art world delivered to Henri Rousseau that makes Le Douanier's folksy jungles all the more beloved. It was embarrassing that such a thing could happen here, although I suppose, with kids being gunned down every other day, you can't shed too many tears over fiberglas statues. I remembered the name: Hebru Brantley. Quite a name.
Then Friday, I had a half hour to kill between lunch at The Gage and walking over to Navy Pier to do my radio bit with Eric Zorn on WBEZ. I was standing in front of the Cultural Center, and realized I hadn't gone in for a couple years. So I popped inside and poked around.
Maybe it's the comix sensibility. Unlike many artists, he isn't pretending to have the secret of life smoldering in the center of his palm.
“The paintings don’t take themselves very seriously,” he told Chicago magazine. “I’m a kid at heart. But they still have some of those darker undertones.”
As being a kid invariably did, if you're honest about it. If it were just the paintings, I'm not sure I would have noticed Brantley. But something about those sculptures. Their bright hues. Their numbers, which seem to follow them even when they're standing alone. Their smoothness, the palette. Maybe it's the goggles, a reflection of the old Tank Girl comic which was one of the better New Age characters.
I also like these masks. They have a proud innocence, a kind of purity, which could also be said for Hebru Brantley, a young Chicagoan who is catching the world's attention.
The show is free, and runs through Sept. 23.