“Disney Sign Destruct” by Jeff Gillette, 2015
Our artist of the week: Jeff Gillette
One glance at Detroit-born art teacher Jeff Gillette may not leave you with the impression of one of the most influential creative practitioners of our times – an article in the London Evening Standard last year having described him as “a dead ringer for a lesser-haired Jeff Lebowski”. However, as those of us in the art business know, initial appearances can be more than deceiving.
Such is the case with the man who, to sum it up in two words, “Banksied Banksy” – although, he went somewhat further than that by actually working with and seemingly providing inspiration to Bristol’s most internationally-known anonymous creative.
Allow us to explain. Pretty much anyone who has kept the laziest eye on the international art scene of the last few years will know of “Dismaland”, the pop-up “bemusement park” in the unassuming English town of Weston-super-Mare. According to reports at the time of its September 2015 closure, the dark attraction had drawn more than 150,000 paying visitors and £20 million to the seaside town.
‘Dismaland’ was a temporary art project organised by street artist Banksy, constructed in the seaside resort town of Weston-super-Mare in Somerset, England. Prepared in secret, the pop-up exhibition at the Tropicana, a disused lido, was "a sinister twist on Disneyland" that opened during the weekend of 21 August 2015 and closed permanently on 27 September 2015, 36 days later. Banksy described it as a "family theme park unsuitable for children".
So, where does Gillette enter the Dismaland story?
The briefest look at the now-Orange County-based artist’s own post-apocalyptic paintings should tell you a little something about that. His often amusing and ironic juxtapositions of the colours, logos and characters of the biggest global brands – including Disney, Facebook and YouTube, to name just a few – with scenes of shantytown-style slums in India and South America could have been practically cut-and-pasted by the Bristolian for Dismaland.
That theory is even more convincing when one considers that Gillette produced a very similarly-named set of paintings – ‘Dismayland’ – back in 2010. Fast-forward five years and the American found himself invited by Banksy’s manager to work on the Dismaland project.
Dismayland Collection: Jeff Gillette grew up in the suburbs of 1960s Detroit enamoured with “The Wonderful World of Disney” TV show. Yet, this vision was shattered in his late teens in 1978, when he finally visited the Orange County amusement park and discovered that he actually detested the place for its utopian artificiality. His ‘Dismayland’ collection takes a different look at the magical kingdom of Disneyland, taking the concept of the perfect-looking, almost fantasy-like structure that is Disney and turning it on its head.
Although Gillette was hardly the only artist involved in the dystopian installation’s realisation – one of the others being his wife Laurie Hassold, who worked with him to create the Mickey Mouse ears worn by workers at the attraction – he was nonetheless hailed as its standout artist.
Jeff and Laurie spent two days making hundreds of distressed looking Mickey Mouse Ears from paint can lids. The ears were worn by the theme park personnel who were instructed to act ‘dismal’ to patrons.
It’s an association that goes back a long way
Such was the success of Gillette’s participation in Dismaland that a follow-up exhibition of 15 of his paintings, entitled Post Dismal, was held at Lawrence Alkin Gallery in London last summer, with many of the works evidently inspired by the Banksy project. It was another example of the recurring exchanges of influence between the two artists dating back a decade.
“Ferris Wheel” by Jeff Gillette, 2016
Arty-Fact: In 2010, Jeff Gillette created a series of paintings called Dismayland. This body of work is thought to have inspired Banksy’s major 2015 installation project Dismaland. A commentator on the UK’s Channel 4 International remarked at the park’s opening that “Dismaland was in part inspired by the work of Jeff Gillette, who’s been subverting Disney for years”. The artist, however, quickly responded saying that he and Banksy share similar sensibilities. Source: “Before Banksy, Painter Jeff Gillette’s ‘Dismayland’ Took on Disney” by Liz Goldner, KCET, 2015
Indeed, it was in 2006 when Gillette first “Banksied Banksy”, at the street-art legend’s Barely Legal exhibition in Los Angeles. A live, painted elephant was the headline act, and Gillette was persuaded by his friends to “go put one of your pieces in his show”.
In a move that we are sure would have elicited an approving nod from Banksy when the news filtered through to him, Gillette hid his painting down his shirt to avoid arousing the suspicion of the security guards, before entering a room full of Banksy’s stencil paintings and placing his own contribution between two of them. He was even able to have his picture taken.
But where did it all come from?
To gain a fuller picture of Gillette’s artistic drives, one needs to take his story back to his childhood in the Detroit suburbs of the 1960s. Formerly enamoured with the TV show The Wonderful World of Disney, he found his dream-like image of the brand shattered when he finally visited the Orange County amusement park in his late teens.
The site’s utopian artificiality was not remotely to the young Gillette’s liking: “I went with a friend and we hated it and we stayed for only 30 minutes.” However, the unfortunate experience was not enough to deter him from drawing Disney characters as his interest in Pop Art grew, with the simple circular features and graphic possibilities of Mickey Mouse particularly intriguing him.
Almost inevitably, Gillette went on to attend art school – in the Detroit area – but soon felt the need to clench his thirst for adventure. He duly did so by spending two years in the Peace Corps in Nepal, making frequent visits in his spare time to the sprawling shantytowns of nearby Calcutta.
These slums – despite having “the most horrible living conditions on Earth” – entranced Gillette on account of the fundamental architecture and survival mentality he also found in them. It’s not exactly difficult to discern the jump from this mix of influences to a current portfolio of work combining the likes of frightened Mickeys and Minnies and archetypal Disney buildings like the iconic Castle with all of the motifs of desolate third-world wastelands.
“Dubai Landfill Mickey” by Jeff Gillette, 2016
Arty-Fact: “I call my work of Landfills, ‘Slumscapes’ and Post-Apocalyptic scenes as ‘Too-Realism’, as in too real; stuff that people don’t want to think about, although it is ever-present in one’s psyche or in one’s periphery while in a taxi from the airport to the hotel in a developing country.” – Jeff Gillette
A “psychological” artist rather than a political one
What does Gillette’s work say about the increasingly dystopian political landscape we seem to be entering right now? One place you won’t get much insight into that is the mouth of the artist himself.
Indeed, he has declared himself “not political”, explaining: “I iconocolise stuff. I take stuff, pick at it and f**k with it. When I start messing with something, I see it as a homage. The worst dig at someone is to ignore them. If I bring something up – Disney or Dismaland – it’s a form of flattery in some way, otherwise I wouldn’t bother with it.”
Gillette has instead declared his work to be “psychological”, musing perhaps insightfully that in his own case: “You know, maybe I had a shitty childhood [pre-teens]. I never got to go to Disneyland so I’m just crapping on something everybody loves.”
Jeff Gillette in his studio in California, Image Source: Evening Standard