Local artist takes his dismal vision international
by Brandon Killman
While the Walt Disney Company expands its theme park and media brand, local Southern California artist and Cal State Fullerton alum, Jeff Gillette, finds great success in expanding his creative vision through the medium of cardboard and various scraps of debris.
The artist became widely known for his series of paintings entitled “Dismayland”, the paintings first premiered in 2010 at Los Angeles’s, Gregorio Escalante gallery for a solo show called “Total Dismay”. This local creative launched into mainstream media, and international galleries, after contributing a series of paintings to anonymous artists, Banksy, for his pop-up exhibition of an abandoned theme park with a similar portmanteau title; “Dismaland”.
Gillette is working on a series of Star Wars art pieces, although his version of the Star Wars universe is unique. The famed starship, Millennium Falcon, was constructed with a cardboard base, and several different wood, paper and plastic materials found out of the desert-- all held together with Elmer’s glue. At the top of the ship is a pristine figure of the droid, R2D2, which ties the sculpture together.
In Gillette’s work, cartoon classics like Mickey Mouse, Cinderella, the crows from Dumbo, and even Sleeping Beauty’s Castle are shown in a world that is turned upside down, shaken around a few times and drenched in a hyper realistic setting.
“It’s a combination of the happiest place on earth and what I like to call the heaviest places on earth” Gillette says.
These family favorites are used as visual motifs juxtaposed in shanty slum settings that Gillette has familiarized himself with first hand in his earlier years of travel to developing countries.
During his time in junior college, living in the suburbs just outside of Detroit, Gillette recalls working in the car factories. After one year of making good money, he was laid off when the factories outsourced their work to the likes of Mexico, China and Japan.
“While all my smart friends went off and bought houses, I went out and just traveled.”
From there, Gillette traveled to countries in South East Asia like Sri Lanka, India, and Nepal. He first came across the slums when traveling through Northern India, specifically Delhi, and then later Kalkudah and Sri Lanka.
Observing the living lifestyles of these families, Gillette described his perceptive thoughts on the construction of the housing in these locations. “It was visually stunning to see the ingenuity, and energy that comes from all the color, shadow, form and textures. It was just a cacophony of debris built into necessities of architecture, basically for privacy. There was very little room for comfort in there.”
After Gillette’s personal travels, he joined the Peace Corp in 1987 to teach English as a second language in Kathmandu, Nepal. During his time in these countries, Gillette perfected his “slumscape” paintings.
There was a point in early 2015 where Gillette’s optimism as an artist was as reflective as his Dismayland paintings, “I thought I wasn’t going anywhere.” He said “I would go out to the desert, do a painting and burn it. I’d record a video and put them on YouTube. I was in a very negative place as an artist.”
Things turned around when Gillette received a mysterious message on Facebook from someone who he can’t even recall now that state: “We have great news! Someone named Holly will get a hold of you.”
A couple weeks later, Holly reaches out to Gillette on behalf of U.K. based, anonymous artist, Banksy. The famed anonymous artist wanted to buy some of Gillette’s dystopian Disney paintings.
“It just so happened I still had the painting… I was surprised.” Considering his recent stint in the desert, burning paintings. Banksy wanted a Hiroshima landscape painting that had blue skies and a half-destroyed billboard with Minnie Mouse just barely getting the better end of the destroyed advertisement.
That Minnie Mouse painting later became the billboard for Banksy’s “Dismaland”. The pop-up art project that opened in the U.K., mimicking an abandoned theme park. Gillette kept in touch with strictly Holly via Banksy. Banksy eventually wanted Gillette to be a part of an abandoned theme park project he was leading in the U.K.
Gillette was tasked to produce six more 40”x60” paintings which were a much larger scale than his original works at about 20”x36”.
In August of 2015, Banksy’s pop up theme park and art experience, Dismaland opened to the public. Gillette was flown out to Somerset, England, to stand by his work that was featured in the infamous “Bemusement Park” and demanded a great deal of media attention.
After the success of Dismaland, Gillette emerged into the public eye with his series of painting that just a year ago he was burning in the desert. The summer of 2016, a London gallery, Lawrence Alkin, hosted a solo exhibit of Gillette’s work called “Post Dismal.”
Since then, Gillette continues to produce and expand on his brand and vision of family favorite icons placed into settings outside the comfort of their cushy wonderful world. When Gillette is taking some off time from his artwork, he is known by Mr. Gillette, in his role as an art teacher at Foothill High School in Tustin.
Gillette holds the work that he does in education to high regards and seems humbled to be able to inspire young creatives to take their vision as far as it will let them.