“Yesterday’s Loser’s are Tomorrow’s CEOs” exhibit gives pop-art substance

By Sophia Coleman

Some artists follow the art scene, and others make it their own.

Afro-Futurist Hebru Brantley, 29, is an artist who does the latter. His work has multiple facets but is based on inspiration from his childhood, when his mother encouraged him to nurture his imagination by playing with toys, reading comics and embracing pop culture.

Brantley’s most recent exhibition “Yesterday’s Losers Are Tomorrow’s CEOs,” at Lacuna Artist Lofts and Studios, 2150 S. Canalport Ave., has sparked re-examination of the past and current state of black Americans and expresses his general outlook on the world.

“[The idea] came out of a conversation I was having not only with my peers, but with an older generation,” Brantley said. “Blame gets passed down every generation from an older generation. It’s this new ‘Cosby theory’ that’s changed.”

According to Brantley, he uses the “Cosby Theory,” to portray certain comments and speeches Bill Cosby has made recently about the family structure, particularly of the modern black family. The statements moved him to create some of his pieces. Images of misguided youth and society’s response to them are a huge focus of the exhibit.

Brantley also utilized major icons of the modern era, such as Bill Gates and Steve Jobs but also brought forth images of people who had talent in abundance but didn’t always know which way to aim it.

“You have people [who] were considered to be the losers or outcasts of society at some point for doing something that goes against the norm,” Brantley said. “But now these people shape contemporary society.”

Brantley said that, overall, the exhibit is an homage to the people who accomplished change by nurturing their imagination and embracing their inner child.

“This exhibit speaks to them,” Brantley said.

His intellectual, neon street art has been on display across the country since 2000, and it may look somewhat familiar. The 20th anniversary of Lollapalooza featured Brantley’s work on the music festival’s fliers. Artists like Shepard Fairey, who is famous for his “OBEY” sticker campaign and the President Barack Obama “HOPE” poster, designed it in the past, so Brantley jumped at the opportunity.

Some of the characters featured in the Lollapalooza fliers can be found in his current exhibit, but there are even more recognizable images within his paintings.

“In this show, you will find a painting of [late graffiti artist] Jean-Michel Basquiat and [Andy] Warhol standing side by side, [and] Biggie Smalls, created within my style, to push the narration of the entire exhibition,” Brantley said.

Brantley, in addition to Smalls, drew inspiration from hip-hop artist Common and jazz legend Sun Ra, who was a controversial musician and philosopher from the late ’60s, and one of the first Afro-Futurists.

“[Sun Ra] was very different in his approach [to] music [and] appearance,” Brantley said.

He explained the genesis of his exhibit was centered on Smalls and Basquiat, two Brooklyn natives, who were told what they couldn’t do a thousand times but ended up changing the scope of the music and art scene.

“I initially started the idea of this show because I wanted to highlight these two people, but it is one of these things that came organically through the creation of these two pieces,” Brantley said.

Basquiat was a profound inspiration, as Brantley’s style and meaning have been compared to masterpieces of the iconic graffiti artist.

“Basquiat [was] a black kid [who], at the age of 21, came into the high-art world and broke all the rules and all the records,” Brantley said.

While he highly respects the power of graffiti, Brantley has no limits with the media he uses.

His work is often multimedia, with a mixture of acrylics, spray-paints and oils. He explained he prefers oil, while the acrylics and spray-paint give him more spontaneity and free reign to experiment.

Granted, Brantley needed all the time he could get, as he had to fill up the entire bottom floor of the building.

“When I came in, the warehouse was raw—just the wood-paneled floors and ceilings,” Brantley said. “This is the most ambitious thing I have done.”

The backdrop of the grainy wood against the vibrant pop-art portraits of Brantley’s characters gave the feeling of being both inside and outside the streets, according to Justin Marking, a collector of Brantley’s art.

“He is very talented,” Marking said. “During the past five years his style has grown in depth and in subject matter.”

Some of Marking’s favorite pieces have been the bold, black marker characters, which were featured on the bodies of a Jeep Wrangler and motorcycle stationed in the center of the gallery.

Joey Cacciatore, owner of Lacuna Studios, compared the aesthetic Brantley brought to the space as entering into wonderland. Between the layout of the space and the size and intricacy of the works, he said “Yesterday’s Loser’s” has been his favorite show.

“He’s gifted in the way that he can mix pop and street art [to] form a powerful piece,” Cacciatore said. “[Visitors] should keep their seatbelts on and get ready for the next one.”

As for what Brantley’s next step is, he has many ideas, but it’s a matter of what happens first. He said his art mimics a cliff hanger episode of “The Hebru Brantley Show,” and the audience should stay tuned.

“You’ll hear a lot from me in the immediate future,” Brantley said. “I’m kind of a big deal.”

“Yesterday’s Losers Are Tomorrow’s CEOs” will be exhibited at Lacuna Artist Lofts and Studios, 2150 S. Canalport Ave., from Oct. 14–Dec. 9. Gallery hours are Monday through Friday, noon to 5 p.m. and Saturdays by appointment. For more information, call (773) 609-5638.