When he was a little kid, multimedia artist Brian Bustos moved around a lot. “I lived all over the States,” he says. “I didn’t make fast friends. Drawing was comforting.” Finding succor in art and cartoons, Bustos grew into a shy guy with an extroverted painting style. His characters look timid, too — their eyes are often closed, acknowledging their fellow figures with their posture instead.

These aloof figures live in a blue world of circles, dots, upside-down clouds, and silhouetted birds. The characters’ arms look like wings or willowy tree branches. They’re connected with spider webs and balloon strings, delicate lifeline strands tying them into a moonscape background. They’re the cast of Bustos’ new show Good Morning Spider, which the artist describes as partly an exploration of the “balance between living in the modern world and the natural world.”

These characters, with their fiber-optic hookups, have the round, simple body shapes of Tove Jansson’s Moomintroll illustrations, and their kids and pets look like Bloo from Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends. But Bustos’ art isn’t kids’ stuff. He bridges storybook charm, naïve art (he’s self-taught and sometimes uses found materials), and fine art. In only two years as an exhibited painter, he’s made a big impression with his work at SCOOP and Outer Space. Spider is his second show for Eye Level Art and the first one full of paintings specifically created for the gallery.

“This one is a little bit tighter than last time,” says Eye Level owner Mike Elder. “It’s a new body of work. For the last one he pulled out a bunch of stuff, and it was more mixed up. Now he’s building on a new character who’s not defined yet.” Elder and his collectors are fascinated by the blue world that Bustos has been steadily developing as he gains confidence. “I want to see the characters come full circle and see what’s created from that.”

Despite his increasing fanbase, Bustos’ head refuses to swell. He’s still quiet-spoken to the point of reticence, letting his images speak for him. One of his characters searches for the shadow of music. “It’s an impossible feat. Music doesn’t make shadows,” he says, deadpan.
Bustos has observed that some people search for invisible things their whole life, like happiness. “You can’t touch any of that stuff, and when it’s there, it suddenly goes away.” He allows storylines like this to develop over time. “Sometimes a viewer or a friend will give me an idea, and I’ll run with it. The stories are ever-evolving in my mind. If I have a concrete storyline, it makes me have to paint. I’m locked into an idea.”

Bustos’ ascension through the local art scene has been fast but well-deserved because of his admirable focus. After studying film at Trident Technical College, he spent a year building a portfolio of paintings. The portfolio earned him a slot in One Night Stand, a group show that led to a solo gig at SCOOP. Now he’s exhibiting outside Charleston with summer shows in New York and Madison, Wis. “Everything’s unfolding nicely,” he  says. “I’m surprised — I pinch myself sometimes. I can’t believe it’s actually happening, but I do put lots of hours a day into my work.”

As Bustos admits, his art isn’t for everyone. “Some people think a kid could do it,” he says. “But most of them understand it. I’m not trying to get people to get it. I’m doing what I do, and it makes me feel good when I’m making it for myself.”

Some viewers will find his art derivative; his character of a human in a bear suit is a close cousin to the hero of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. But Bustos has plenty of his own stories to tell in a world of cotton reels and alien spiders. With the extra enticement of mixed-media experiments, handmade canvases, and unique color combinations, Bustos deserves all the attention he’s getting, closing that emotional distance with every piece he creates.