Ahead of his forthcoming UK debut exhibition at Lawrence Alkin Gallery we caught up with painter Jeff Gillette to discuss, amongst other things, the themes he’s explored in ‘Post Dismal’, as well as the influence of his extensive travels in Asia and how these diverse experiences manifest in his work.
How would you describe the type of art you create?
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.
You were one of the major hits from Banksy’s Dismaland. How were you approached to contribute work for his Bemusement Park?
Banksy's people contacted me on FaceBook, then began corresponding with me via email. Soon came an offer from Banksy himself to buy a painting that I had shown years ago in Los Angeles that I was surprised I still had. This painting ended up as the poster for Dismaland. The painting was also on the wall with my other work right next to the Damien Hirst floating beach ball. It was great showing with such big names. When I was interviewed by BBC in the gallery, they ended up scrapping the segment because you couldn't hear me or the interviewer over the blowers of Hirst's piece! That in itself is kind’ve cool.
What do you think of Banksy’s work?
Banksy's work is highly intelligent and witty. From what I saw behind the scenes at Dismaland, his attention to detail and craft were extraordinary. He is surely an art icon of this century.
How did you settle on your choice of subject matter - juxtaposing slums and shantytowns with scenery and characters plucked from Disney?
When I was a college drop-out in 1982, I travelled to Asia to see the most beautiful and most horrid landscapes I could find: the high Himalayas from 16,000 feet on a Nepal trek, and the lowly, sub-tropical slums between the points of interest on a Calcutta city tour. I remember the guide saying, " no pictures!" while we traversed the Howrah Slums. I couldn't help it, I had to take a couple shots with my loud, clankity old SLR film camera, and have been transfixed ever since. Then when I moved for a teaching job to Orange County California home of Disneyland, things kind've merged. By my late 30s I had never been to Disneyland, but I had been back to Calcutta a dozen times. Me putting the beacon of "The Happiest Place on Earth" in the midst of a painting of decrepit shanty-towns seemed inevitable. My use of Disney themes culminated in a number of LA shows including my "Dismayland" show at Copro Gallery in 2010.
How do Disneyland and Dismaland compare in your eyes?
All I can say is that I've been to Dismaland many more times than Disneyland, and I like it that way.
You’ve travelled extensively as both an artist and Peace Corps volunteer, in what ways have these experiences informed your artwork?
As a Peace Corps volunteer in Nepal for two years, every couple of months I would travel to India and immerse myself in the urban chaos of all the major cities. There I would engage in self-guided tours of the slums, either by taxi, train or foot. I was overwhelmed by those experiences, so much so that I still try to make it there every year. Back then, when you asked a taxi driver to take you to the slums, they would look at you funny. Now there is an industry of slum-tourism. I now have a personal slum guide in Mumbai, Hashim Abdul, and am making friends with artists in India who are always happy to show me around. Artist Samir Parker has added color tarps on the rooftops of shanties. I found him at the same time I was painting colorful App logos on the tops on shacks in my work. Gireesh G.V. a photographer has joined me in Delhi slums for photo outings.
What can visitors to ‘Post Dismal’ at Lawrence Alkin Gallery expect to see?
Three directions I am taking for the Post Dismal show: One is the continuation of my usual stabs at Disney using distressed surroundings with their icons. Two, is I've started doing the same spoofing of Disney, but instead focusing on Dismaland. Here I've taken liberty with material from Banksy’s art. I still wonder if anyone out their from either camp is getting irritated with me. The third direction is more personal and my favorite. It’s also my return to painting with oil. I am connecting my travel experiences to my work, where a series of paintings will reflect visuals culled from specific trips to impoverished areas of world cities. Currently, I'm still entranced by India, but hope to again expand this exploration to other countries. In each painting I feature Mickey Mouse, as if he were the prime, solitary witness to the degradation. This use of Mickey in landscapes I share giving homage to my favorite artists, Llyn Foulkes from LA.
Roughly how long does each canvas take you to complete and do you work on multiple paintings at once or focus on one at a time?
My studio is my home that I share with my wife who is a sculptor, Laurie Hassold. We don’t have kids, so we each use one of the bedrooms for our studio. I use the house for my acrylic work, but need to use the garage (with the kitty- litter box) for oil painting. I work on multiple paintings at once, then focus on one exclusively until it is completed. Usually a piece comes together in a month or longer. Sometimes, pieces get set aside for years.
Your work has a lot of socio-politic undertones. Would you comment on issues like the current US presidential election campaign in your art?
I try to steer clear of this stuff. It is too topical for me. True, much of my work speaks of economic disparity and corporate indulgence, but I'm hoping to dig deeper. During my two years in Nepal, most of my time was spent without English speakers nearby or conveniences like cars or electricity. There was running water though, I had to run down the hill to go get it. I lived in a mud shack and I ate rice and lentils exclusively for months on end. If I had treats, I could make a small bag of M&M chocolates last for weeks. I feel I experienced first-hand a bit what poverty would be like. I had a lot of time to think. I read voraciously. From home I took ‘heavy’ survey text books on Philosophy and devoured them. My favorite chapters were those that described the thick, pessimistic view of the world according to Arthur Schopenhauer. He starts his treatise with: "Life must be some kind of mistake..." then it goes downhill from there. With my work, I try to address deeper issues like this, asking 'why are things so fucked up?' All the while feeling it is all futile, desperate and doomed. It is a bitter pill to swallow, I know, so I sugar-coat it with a scoop of 'happy.'
Finally, what do you enjoy doing when not making art?
I have been teaching high school art for 24 years. That's what I do when I'm not doing my own art. To get away from both, besides traveling, my favorite thing to do is to plunge myself into isolation and solitude in the Californian Mojave Desert. In about five hours, I can find myself overnighting in my pickup in the middle of nowhere, with no sign of civilization in any direction. It is actually frightening in some ways, but exhilarating in others. It is the perfect place to meditate. But I don't meditate. In Kathmandu I did a 10-day, 11 hours-a-day Buddhist meditation retreat of 'practice' and little eating with no talking. I found out in the middle of it that I must have Attention Deficit Disorder. So I can't help it, I do 'art' out there too. I film myself meditating, painting, burning stuff, building sculptures out of desert debris, knocking stuff down, anything. Most of these are on my "Jeff Gillette" YouTube channel. I guess I can't 'not' do art. Life to me is an aesthetic experience, and I treat it as such.
Jeff Gillette : Post Dismal
Featuring 15 paintings, the work in Post Dismal is a continuation of the post-apocalyptic scenes he’s been creating for over 20 years. This time, however, Gillette turns the tables on Banksy, with many scenes in his new work inspired by Dismaland. View available works.
24th June - 23rd July
For more information or to purchase works please contact the gallery on +44 (0) 20 7240 7909 or email us at email@example.com.