Hebru Brantley's past and future collide in Heritage's Urban Art event

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Hebru Brantley's past and future collide in Heritage's Urban Art event
LY (b. 1981), Untitled, 2020. Acrylic on canvas, 28-3/4 x 28-1/2 inches.

DALLAS, TX.- Right now, in unusual balance, people are as interested in the past as they are the unknowable future, and it's reflected in our determination to hold on to what shaped us as the world becomes less recognizable. The key words here are "nostalgia" and "hope." When collectors are lucky, an artist comes along who deftly combines our youthful obsessions with an eye on the next era, and in that artist's work we see ourselves: Through agile narratives and memorable characters, an artwork can remind us of the sparks that shaped us, and in turn we reconsider the future we'd dreamed about.

Chicago-based artist Hebru Brantley epitomizes the deftness necessary to pull off such a trick. Brantley's main characters, two kids named Fly Boy and Lil Mama, often reenact and reimagine the heroics of the Tuskegee Airmen, a group of African-American military pilots who fought in World War II. Fly Boy and Lil Mama turn to an older narrative to explore their own new one: The history of the war fighters grounds their actions in a real and collective Black experience, while their limitless imaginations open up prospects for an empowered hereafter.

There's a nod to so much we love in these pictures — the easy companionship of Calvin and Hobbes, Saturday morning cartoons, the Muppets, and certainly super-hero comics and science fiction. Brantley's work wears its relationship with Afrofuturism lightly and with good-natured respect; these kids have their lives ahead of them, and they recognize no boundaries between their sticky earthly reality and the celestial expanse of possibility.

Art lovers have responded. In recent years, Brantley has zoomed past "rising star" to bonafide art star — his collectors include Jay Z, LeBron James, George Lucas, Rahm Emanual, Beyoncé and Lenny Kravitz. He's collabed with Adidas, Nike, and Hublot. He's branched into filmmaking.

On July 25, Heritage will offer four works by Brantley, including two paintings, in its Signature® Urban Art event. Brantley hits that sweet spot street-art collectors yearn for: He is a fine artist who, like Fly Boy and Lil Mama, can't be bothered with categories: In the past he's explained that he likes the egalitarian aspects of street art, that "you have to put something out in the public… you have a conversation as you're creating it. You see people in the neighborhood respond to the work, and, through those responses, you know what worked."

The acrylic on canvas Scarlet Letter to the Rescue, from 2010, is quintessential Brantley and a significant work by the artist. A kid in a Captain America hood gazes out at you from the canvas with a matter-of-fact gimlet eye, the "A" on his forehead carrying the weight of so much: the history of Marvel Comics (if not Marvel's own commentary on the 20th century), the history of the United States, the history of Hawthorne's treatise on shaming and punishment. This is the way of the world: Adults create the problems, then the solutions, and then more problems that future generations are left to deal with. This kid knows what's up.

"Heritage is pleased to once again offer collectors works by the young visionary Hebru Brantley," says Taylor Curry, Heritage's Director of Modern & Contemporary Art in New York. "He's just the tip of the iceberg of a fantastic event that presents the who's-who of urban art, including exciting works by veterans Takashi Murakami and RETNA, to rising stars like LY and James Jarvis."

Some big names indeed introduce the auction; Takashi Murakami's painting titled Lying on the Grasslands, Pondering Death and the Ends of the Universe: Jet Black, is here. From 2016, the work is indeed jet-black, shiny as an oil slick and seemingly embossed with countless stacked and tumbling skulls. It's as cheeky and rigorous as one would expect from the master. Street-art favorite RETNA has an unusual work in this event with The Conversation Piece 2, from 2019, and the painting takes its title from what it actually is: A "conversation" between RETNA and his mother. He slashed the canvas. She hand-stitched it back up.

On the up-and-coming stars: "We try to put forward emerging talent," says Curry. "We give young artists a chance at auction in a category that understands and honors their vision." Among the newer names in this event are the Tokyo-based Ly, with her untitled 2020 acrylic on canvas that depicts, via understated abstraction, a tonal scene of two figures sitting in a parkland and facing the viewer. Brooklyn-based Milo Matthieu is represented here with a large painting titled POWERS, from 2019. The acrylic, oil stick, and resin-coated paper on panel vibrates with collaged figures in a graphic and cubist space confronting the viewer. Brett Crawford's painting A Falcaroo Named Knievel, 2018 is here, too; the SoCal artist works his magic realism on a winged kangaroo about to launch himself while wearing an Easy Rider American flag helmet, his little bird friend perched on top as co-pilot.

These are just a handful of the 99 lots in a tightly-curated event that honors the output of artists who travel in diasporic contemporary art — from longtime museum favorites to the newest kids on the block.

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