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And Then I Got Called a Pussy Faggot

All the flak he's been catching for his inflammatory stamp art has persuaded Al Brandtner that he really is an artist.

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Some people have lawyers on retainer. Others have lawyers thrust upon them. Al Brandtner was in the latter category until the Secret Service visited "Axis of Evil," an exhibit at Columbia College's Glass Curtain Gallery, on Thursday, April 7. By the next day, when the Secret Service wanted to contact the artist who'd created the mock stamp portraying George W. Bush with a gun pointed at his head over the slogan "Patriot Act," they couldn't. Any questions they had would have to go through the attorney he'd hired that morning.

Brandtner isn't hard to find--his number is listed, and he has a Web site. If the Secret Service had called him before visiting the gallery, he says, he would have spoken to them: "I probably would have walked right in that day and explained that I had no intention, I have no guns, I hate guns, and it wasn't what I was thinking when I made the piece."

The visit hit the news the following week. On Monday, Brandtner listened to messages from the Sun-Times and Fox News, but he didn't call back. On Tuesday he walked downstairs to the basement studio that houses his business, Brandtner Design, switched on the TV, and sat down to finish an illustration for a new edition of The Secret Garden, which he had to have ready for a client by the end of the day. The phone rang. Brandtner let the answering machine record a woman who said she was from the BBC and asked him to please return her call as soon as possible. Then he heard his name again, from the television this time. Fox was running its story about the show. He turned it off and the phone rang again. It was Good Morning America. The calls kept coming throughout the day, from NPR, WLS, the Guardian. "It was everybody," says Brandtner, "all these very urgent requests--you know, get back to us as quickly as possible."

This kind of attention could be an artist's dream. The show's curator, Michael Hernandez de Luna, is no stranger to controversy, his stamp art having prompted visits by postal inspectors in the past. But Brandtner couldn't see himself as a screaming head on a split-screen news show. He didn't call anyone back. "I've never been able to speak real clearly about my political views," he says, "and when I've been engaged in arguments with people who are opposed to them I often find myself stammering and unable to really defend myself." Also, though Brandtner, who's 47, has always made his living as an illustrator and designer, he didn't see himself as a real artist in the sense of those he admired--Marcel Duchamp, or Andy Warhol. They'd had something to say to the world, but Brandtner had come to believe he didn't. "In art school it was clear to me that I didn't have a voice to deliver any kind of cohesive message," he says. "I didn't know what to say." After leaving school he became a commercial artist.

Brandtner's first public exposure came at age seven, when his drawing of a dog was printed in the children's section of the local newspaper. The next came when he was 17, after he won a contest in his home state of Virginia to design a new logo for a nuclear-powered cruiser, the USS Virginia. The logo was a traditional piece picturing a missile, the nuclear symbol, and a map of Virginia in a ship's wheel, and Brandtner won a scholarship for it. He met both the governor and political cartoonist Jeff MacNelly, then at the Richmond News-Dispatch, who judged the contest. But a stir developed when the logo was published: Brandtner had left Virginia's eastern shore, which is separated from the rest of the state by Chesapeake Bay, off the map. "I brought the scorn of this whole section of Virginia down on me and had to write a letter of apology in the paper," he says.

Since then, throughout a career designing and illustrating CDs (he's done more than 300), book jackets, video cover art, posters, logos, and fonts, Brandtner's rarely been singled out for attention. He'd dabbled in fine art and had a few pieces in shows here and there, but the Columbia show was the first for which he'd created a body of work. After receiving a call for submissions from Hernandez de Luna in the fall of 2003, he decided to give stamp art a try. It was a challenge, and he liked the idea--the repetitive images on a sheet of stamps reminded him of Warhol. The show's theme, the "axis of evil," was one on which he felt he had something to say.

Brandtner made five pieces for the show. Blood for Oil features a picture of an SUV. The stark black-and-white This Stamp Kills Fascists is a takeoff on "This Machine Kills Fascists," the slogan Woody Guthrie wrote on his guitar. A stamp titled Parla Con Tounge Biforcato pictures a blue-faced Mother Teresa with a forked tongue slithering out from a twisted, evil smile. Collateral Damage--a sheet of stamps with photos of the dead and wounded from recent American wars--and Patriot Act echoed the show's title in their use of the Bush administration's catchphrases, "twisting these words back around and putting a different image to it," Brandtner says. He swears he didn't have assassination in mind when he created Patriot Act. "I wasn't thinking of it as a threat. I was shoving the Patriot Act," he insists. But as the phone continued to ring and people on television said his name, he wondered how he'd gotten himself into this.

That Wednesday, Good Morning America ran its piece without him, and e-mails began streaming into Brandtner's in-box. Some cheered him on, but most called him names--"punk fascist," "pussy faggot." When he saw these, "That actually started to make me feel better," he says. He'd finally produced a statement that made people angry, a work of art. He didn't have to go on television and defend it. "I'd made my statements," he says.

After the deluge came the calm. Other than a call from the Progressive that Saturday, the studio was quiet. By May the Secret Service still hadn't spoken to Brandtner, and his lawyer expected that they probably never would (though the Secret Service doesn't publicly close the books on its investigations). But Brandtner was on a new track. He was pitching himself to a gallery, Bucket Rider, for the first time in his career and searching for deals on a machine that would perforate stamp sheets. He wasn't sure if he'd make any more stamp art, but he could use it to make artist's proofs of the pieces he'd made already. He'd bought a time-card holder to use in a new conceptual piece. He'd finally granted interviews, to Fox News, the Sun-Times, WBEZ. "I sort of feel like I've awoken something inside me that's been inside me for a long time, and for its brief moment was shaking up a lot of people," he says. He feels like an artist.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.

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