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Two years ago, Jeff Gillette’s work — dystopian shantytowns juxtaposed with cartoonish (often Disney) images — caught the eye of elusive U.K. artist Banksy, who invited the SoCal painter to participate in his 2015 abandoned-theme-park project, Dismaland, in the English coastal town of Weston-super-Mare. “My work was so dreary and miserable that he thought it was a good fit,” says Gillette.
Gillette was flown over to the U.K. with his wife, artist Laurie Hassold. Both were quickly enlisted to make mouse ears out of paint-can lids for Dismaland’s workers. And Gillette’s work, still relatively unknown internationally, was used in an official Dismaland poster and exhibited next to a Damien Hirst piece in the project’s gallery.
Years before Banksy’s Dismaland, Gillette had used “Dismayland” to label his ironic dark visions. Exposure in L.A.-area galleries brought admirers from the art world and the entertainment industry, from Tobey Maguire to attorney (and former MOCA interim director) Maria Seferian.
“It’s very cleverly done,” says actress Joanna Cassidy (Odd Mom Out), who owns three Gillette works. “Initially, it’s are a little hard to look at, but he has an amusing element to it.”
Now Total Dismay, a new iteration of Gillette’s dark vision opens May 27 at DTLA’s Gregorio Escalante Gallery.
A self-described late starter in painting (he cartooned before), Gillette developed his preoccupation with dilapidated cities and slums during his time serving in the Peace Corps and his travels to India in the 1980s. The Disney fascination came in part from growing up in the 1960s and ‘70s with The Wonderful World of Disney and the lure of Disneyland, which was beyond his reach as a kid in the Detroit suburbs with parents of modest means. “It was a dream that I could never, ever realize,” he says.
When he moved to Orange County in the 1990s to teach, Disney iconography became a way “to give people a foothold” with work that depicts extreme poverty and environmental decay. “Around here, all the kids have a season pass to Disneyland. Everyone has their ear turned to it. So it’s accessible for me as a social satirist.” The result: works like Bandra Mickey Flyover, which places the iconic Disney mouse in the slums of an Indian city. “It’s the juxtaposition that I happen to find fascinating: the happiest place on earth, and the heaviest place on earth.”
In Gillette’s new show, Mickey Mouse sits atop a massive trash dump, and slumscapes are strewn with Xbox packaging. Gillette also plays with the question, “How do we choose what and how we ascribe worth to things?” he says. If you look closely, some of his worlds are patched together with priceless mid-century art, including Pollocks and Lichtensteins. “I’m going to cover the gallery floor with signed and numbered prints, and some originals,” he says. “Like walking through an art landfill.”
Says gallerist/collector Greg Escalante of Gillette’s work, “It’s not totally idyllic nor horrific, but it’s two extremes: the yin and yang of wealth and poverty. It makes you kind of appreciate the beauty in both situations.”
The opening reception for Total Dismay is scheduled for May 27 from 7-10 p.m.; the exhibit runs through July 2.
A version of this story first appeared in the May 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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