Monday, June 23, 2014

Martyrs and Heroes: Hebru Brantley at the Chicago Cultural Center

Over this past week, the Chicago Cultural Center has been holding exhibitions of some of Chicago's best artistic talent. Among the artist being shown, the most famous is arguably Hebru Brantley, whose show, Parade Day Rain, currently dominates the Yates Gallery at the 4th floor of the Cultural Center.

The use of the space and the way Mr. Brantley's artwork is set up provides a spacious yet intimate setting for the viewer to properly engage with the art. If you go see this show (which will run until September 23), be mindful of your wristwatch because Parade Day Rain has a unique way of making one lose the sense of time. Parade Day Rain is so captivating because it holds a conversation that resonates with everyone, but Chicagoans especially.

Mr. Brantley communicates to Chicagoans with his instrument of choice, his trademark cartoon figures of child superheroes, the flyboys. Superficially, this may seem like a bit of a paradox. How can a child be a superhero? But if we think about it a little longer: how could a child not be a superhero? Who else carries a stronger sense of idealism, or a conscience freer from prejudice and corruption? Are these not the required traits for a superhero?

They are, but as Mr. Brantley demonstrates, they are increasingly under threat. While some of his paintings and floats depict these little heroes in the full glamor of triumph, many give us a more tragic picture, child superheroes defeated by the negative forces of our modern world: noise, violence, or garbage of any kind. Whether the connection was accidental or intentional, these flyboys (most of them of darker skin tones) represent the predicament that surrounds the youth of our city's most neglected neighborhoods.

This is why I think Mr. Brantley's work is so successful, because it conveys a serious message through a medium that everyone can understand. And the message is simple: Chicago's hope rests on the youth, but the youth's space for growth is quickly being expropriated by hostility. We are sinking our own life boats. What is impressive is that Mr. Brantley communicates this not through a graphic narrative, but simply by expressing the tension between the real and the ideal. Who ever thought cartoons could be so forceful?

Chicago is lucky to have him.

1 comment:

  1. I agree Chicago is a lucky town. Though self-described as an Afro-futurist, his pieces read wholly American with incorporations of Spiderman, Kermit the frog, and Mickey Mouse imagery in graffiti-inspired paintings of social commentary. This exhibition examines the relationship between society and celebrity impulse with themes of love, silver linings and the spectacle play at large. Brantley's visual voice leaves the viewer contemplating the social struggles and heroic wonder of urban youth. He effectively stretches the viewer's mind back to the raw and creative vulnerability of childhood.