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Hebru Brantley’s Evolution

Mary Jane Villamor

Any great artist seeks progression at all times. –Hebru Brantley

As I waited with anticipation outside Hebru Brantley’s new studio in Pilsen, which he started working in this past July, I wondered where his art was progressing and what I would see in his new show, Yesterday’s Losers. What interested me most was Brantley’s acceptance to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. I wondered where an M.F.A. would take this self-taught artist and his art.

After being escorted inside, with still no sign of Brantley, my eyes scan the exposed red brick walls and settle on Flyboy. The sculpture is inverted, no longer flying, laid on a table in a backbend, stripped of color, still being prepared by Brantley’s intern.

Finally sitting down with the artist, we begin with how Brantley’s street art was honed through the techniques of graffiti art. However, it’s important not confuse Brantley’s art with the lettering of graffiti art; his art whether in the street or in the gallery is character based. He tells stories through his urban characters, and his tools of the trade are not limited to spray cans.

Neither does Brantley limit himself, as his statement in a March 2011 interview with Alison Cuddy on 848 illustrates, “Any great artist seeks progression at all times.” I asked Brantley if getting an M.F.A. was his road to greatness:

It’s very strange. The whole dichotomy of going to school or not going to school, being a studied artist or a folk artist, I see school as that. I see it as being able to learn, to pick up some things here and there, because I am completely self-taught. I’ve never been in that structure. . . . I welcome the experience. I welcome the challenge more so than anything. . . . I see certain artists that I look to as far as how their career has shaped and they’re in the boys club. They’re the ones that . . . went to school . . . and now they are allowed a little bit more opportunity. . . . One, it will be a good experience, and two, I want to maximize it and kind of go for the gusto. Meet all, see all that I can while I’m there.

In preparation for "Yesterday's Losers"

Do not think that Brantley does not want to achieve greatness. Brantley wants to be part of “art history in some way, shape, form, or fashion.” He feels, “I have a part. I have a say, and I can give it my all. . . . I want to be a master. I want to be one of the greats, point blank, period. . . . But chart my own path. Everybody has their own lane and everybody kind of does it a little different from the next. I mean, I’m a 6’ 8” Black man named Hebru; I gotta have something a little different.”

So what will that little piece of paper mean for Brantley? He explains that “with my subject matter, and a lot of times, because of the tools in which I use to create, they are not taken as serious, but I think that obviously there is room for me to grow. . . . It’s like, for some of those people that I couldn’t necessarily reach or grab their attention, by me having this document kind of solidifies me.”

Work by Hebru Brantley

In light of Brantley’s possible stint at SAIC, where does this show, Yesterday’s Losers, take him? In discussing Yesterday’s Losers, we talk about his last show Afro-Futurism: Impossible View. He considers that show his most successful show, comparing it to Yesterday’s Losers saying:

I know that I’ve definitely grown a lot since that show as far as with my style, and I might be, if I wasn’t already, . . . a little bit more cynical in my approach this time [in Yesterday’s Losers]…. It definitely invokes… how I feel…about art as a whole and the things that kind of have been going on in my life and things I’ve seen in mainstream media.

Brantley continued, explaining more about his efforts to evolve his practice:

I think that with this show it is a little darker for sure….A lot of the pieces in there are a bit of me revisiting when I first fell in love with painting…. It’s a bit looser. So [there’s] a duality in that. It’s the loose and the tight. Some pieces you’ll be familiar with. Some you’ll be like, where the hell did he go?

In preparation for "Yesterday's Losers"

So in my quest to find out where Hebru Brantley is going, I find that he returned home to where he is comfortable, to a zen space of creation where his subconscious flows. In trying to chart his progression, he revealed to me that unlike when he first started, he is now less concerned about pleasing the court and “more concerned with making good work, making quality work that [he’s] happy with, that [he’s] completely content with.”

Editor’s note: After this interview was conducted, Brantley made the decision not to attend SAIC for his MFA. He’s holding off on pursuing his graduate degree for the time being.

Yesterday’s Losers showed through December 29th at Marvin Chaptman Gallery, 2150 S. Canalport. Check out Brantley’s website for information on upcoming events and exhibitions.

This article was inspired by a suggestion from our friends at Chicago Urban Art Society.