Hebru Brantley, the self-taught Chicago-based artist, makes his Pittsburgh premiere with I Wish I Knew (How It Felt to Be Free), an exhibit at the August Wilson Center. Brantley’s work is worn on T-shirts and can seen along Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive or viewed on his website, but it perhaps best translates into a gallery setting, where patrons can engage headfirst with his slightly larger-than-life sculptures and paintings.
I Wish I Knew is both a hopeful and haunting commentary on the emotional state of our times. His signature characters are curious children styled in Kermit the Frog hats, Batman masks and aviator goggles. Painted in exuberant color, they take on the heaviness of their painted environments with a contagious degree of whimsy. Imagining Brantley flowing through these pieces in his studio — multimedia style, with acrylic, oil, fiberglass, coffee and tea — brings a surprising smile.
Surprising, because this Brantley experience, curated by Marqui Lyons, brings darkness, too. One canvas, “A Life Less Attractive,” set apart in the room, captures central concepts of the collection. Most of the piece is full of tiny line drawings of disturbing components of contemporary culture. It’s a dismal Easter-egg hunt, to be sure: Christopher Reeves’ Superman in a deteriorating state; a McDonald’s sign, subtitled “BULLSHIT”; an equation declaring “Rap – Lies = Hip-Hop”; naked women violated by a hand that looks mysteriously like Mickey Mouse’s.
However, at the core of all this, Brantley paints a vibrant collage of his own signature pop-culture-clad juvenile heroes, bursting from the Keith Haring-like noise with intense gazes. It is at first challenging, and then confusing: Is this perspective negative or positive? But that’s the wrong question. As with all of Brantley’s work, innocence comes at you from the position of strength. Through his young characters, the viewer witnesses how Brantley’s spirit interacts with danger, and is left with the pervading wisdom of youth.
Take advantage of Brantley’s thoughtful embrace of consumerism and shop online for items depicting heroes Fly Boy and Fly Girl. Look for his video collaborations with Chance the Rapper and the like. But don’t miss the chance to discover Hebru Brantley’s work in person.