Jeff Gillette wants to build a landfill inside Chinatown's Gregorio Escalante Gallery. To do that, though, he needed a little help from his high school art students. He taught them how to properly collage — "not sloppy fifth-grade glob and shit," he says in a recent Skype conversation — and gave them an assignment. He handed out copies of a design featuring the Disneyland sign in a landfill and told them to come up a word beginning with the letter D to collage onto that paper. You can probably hear giggling teenagers as you read that instruction right now.
Gillette had another directive for the students: "I said you can only use the word once, so that I don't get 30 dicks." In the end, Gillette was impressed with the students' vocabulary, and the assignments are now ready to fill the art landfill along with the Orange County–based artist's own prints.
The landfill is a way for Gillette to reflect both on his own career and on the value of art. "What's the difference between a piece of garbage or a piece of garbage that is so-called art or a piece of garbage that is so-called art with my signature on it?" he asks. "Is there any kind of distinction between that stuff?"
On May 27, Gillette's show "Total Dismay" will open at Gregorio Escalante Gallery with the landfill in place alongside a new collection of works that juxtapose Disney icons with imagery inspired by the artist's trips to India's slums. The exhibition also will feature a group show curated by Gillette in the gallery's basement that includes work from sculptor Laurie Hassold, who is Gillette's wife, and Samir Parker, who has worked collaboratively with Gillette. For Gillette, this is his first U.S. solo show since a strange series of events altered his career.
For years, Gillette has been making art that looks at the world's wealth gap by fusing together familiar Disney characters with references to the slums. In fact, back in 2010, he had a solo show at Santa Monica's Copro Gallery called "Dismayland." In it, he painted images such as a broken Disneyland sign positioned between shacks and Snow White lying face down against a mess, sobbing as the adorable woodland creatures around her largely ignore her plight.
Ultimately, Gillette's work caught the attention of Banksy. He received a Facebook message asking if he had a private email. Then he got a message from the superstar artist's manager: Banksy wanted to buy one of Gillette's pieces. After that, Gillette was invited to a theme park event. There was, he recalls, no mention of a name for the exhibition or a location or a date, but Gillette wanted to be a part of it. That turned out to be "Dismaland," Banksy's vision of a rundown amusement park, which became a global art world phenomenon. Gillette's work became part of "Dismaland."
Originally from Detroit, Gillette's own experiences with Disneyland are minimal, even though he lives near the park. "I think mostly I was just too old for it. Whatever glamour and wonder and coolness was gone. It was just a pain in the ass to be there, waiting in line, it cost too much," he says. His experiences with India, however, are plenty.
Gillette spent the late 1980s in the Peace Corps, stationed in Nepal. During his time off, he would travel to India — "because they had better beer and better food," he explains — and explore. "That's when I started investigating slums big-time, walking through them. I think I felt a little less vulnerable because I was working for the United States as a Peace Corps volunteer, so I would walk through them and I wouldn't take pictures back then because I didn't want to get people pissed off, but I would walk through them all the time."
Now, he tries to go there during his time off from teaching. Most recently, he spent spring break in Mumbai working with Samir Parker on a variation of the Mumbai-based artist's "Roof/Tarp/City" project. Exterior walls of buildings in an impoverished neighborhood were painted in blocks of color to create a quilt effect similar to what Parker has previously done with tarps. This summer, Gillette hopes to return to Mumbai for an artist residency. The plan is to build a Disneyland-style castle, maybe with some treats for the local kids, perhaps a bouncy castle or toys.
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At the time of this interview, though, Gillette was busy finishing up work on "Total Dismay" after days spent teaching high school kids. He still had two more paintings to go. One was inspired by the buildings painted on his last Mumbai trip. Another featured Tramp from the Disney cartoon canine romance Lady and the Tramp. Gillette notes that he doesn't hate Disney, but the company's symbols have proved to work well with the messages that he's conveying. "There are a lot of people who hate Disney. That's what I've found," he says. "I don't particularly hate them, I just like fuckin' with them." And, while Gillette notes that he doesn't know how long Disney will continue to be his target, it's worked out pretty well for him.
That's part of what Gillette is unpacking in this show. He admits that the price for his paintings has gone up since the "Dismaland" shoutout. Plus, he's been able to show work outside the United States. But where does he go from there? "I just want to see where this is going," he says, adding, "I'm not going to quit my day job, I'll tell you that."
"Total Dismay" opens at Gregorio Escalante Gallery on Saturday, May 27.