From the ‘happiest place on earth’ to the dismal wasteland of urban slums

From the ‘happiest place on earth’ to the dismal wasteland of urban slums

By BHUMIKA POPLI | | 18 March, 2017
American artist Jeffrey Gillette, urban slums, Disneyland, Cinderella Castle, Exit Gift Shop, Disney characters, Gregorio Escalante Gallery,  California
(L-R) Shadow City Minnie and Mickey and Minnie Hiroshima Love, by Jeffrey Gillette.
American artist Jeffrey Gillette juxtaposes the two very different iconographies of the rich and the poor in his paintings and art projects. This explains the presence of various Disney characters at the centre of his desolate landscapes, writes Bhumika Popli.
California-based artist Jeffrey Gillette hates Disneyland. That “thick syrupy feeling of trying too hard” to be “the Happiest Place on Earth” put him off. The amusement park designed to provide a fun experience to kids and adults alike didn’t make Gillette happy and rather bored him. He found himself at the exit door just after 30 minutes in the park.

“I was in my 30s and no longer a kid. Whatever magic I had thought I would experience, soon evaporated as I stepped into the iconic Cinderella Castle at the front of the park, and found myself inexplicably and immediately outside through the back in just half an hour. There was nothing to explore, no wonder to uncover, and no awe. You just got dumped into the rest of the park, where everything had that same, sinking empty disappointing feeling to it. There were throngs clustered like robots in slow motion, in serpentine queues, sometimes for hours for a few moments of ‘fun’ on a ride. Outside the attractions one found an artificial attempt at keeping reality at bay,” says Gillette.

The “empty fun” that he felt within the park led him to make paintings which deconstruct the promise of “The Happiest Place on Earth”, merging it with the “too real” places on earth. Gillette creates slumscapes adding his own imagery of a Disney character onto it. He travels extensively, with his inspiration stemming from first-hand experience of the most intense impoverished settlements of the world. “I make oil and acrylic paintings of slumscapes, landfills and post-apocalyptic wastelands. I also construct miniature shacks out of weathered wood and found detritus. The subject of the art is a bit heavy on its own, so I add an unexpected element into it. Most often, this juxtaposition is a Disney character or icon, like The Castle or the famous (now gone) Disneyland sign,” says the artist.

Gillette was one of the contributing artists in the 2015 art project “Dismaland” created by Banksy, in England. The project, a scathing critique of various privileged sections of society, witnessed six created works of Gillette. “The collaboration with Banksy came to me more as a mysterious invite on Facebook from his people. They said he wanted to buy a painting of mine. This painting ended up being the poster for sale at the ‘Exit Gift Shop’ at what he referred to as “an abandoned theme park” at an undisclosed location in the UK. Post this, I was invited to be one of the participating artists at his project,” says Gillette.

“The collaboration with Banksy came to me more as a mysterious invite on Facebook from his people. They said he wanted to buy a painting of mine. This painting ended up being the poster for sale at the ‘Exit Gift Shop’ at what he referred to as “an abandoned theme park” at an undisclosed location in the UK.”

The paintings draw your attention due to the inclusion of specific Disney characters in them. It is unexpected to see the character of Minnie squatting in the midst of a Mumbai slum. Similarly, one would never imagine finding most of the characters playing among themselves, with children, in a landfill. Gillette has displaced the characters from their usual shiny environment, bringing them face-to-face with another reality. It seems like the artist has fashioned a meeting between the two worlds which otherwise would never come together. “This series is directed towards kids who, like me, never got to experience the magic kingdom as a child. The objective is to bring art that is visible, fun, colourful and thought-provoking to a part of the city where one would least expect it. The juxtaposition of Disney themes and characters into these dystopias conveys best my view on contemporary social, economical and philosophical contradictions that I can’t help but feel the absurdity of,” says Gillette.

The grammar in Gillette’s artworks arises from his own engagement with poverty and its issues. He says, “I paint slumscapes from long years of experiencing, studying, empathising and appreciating poverty. I remember my first experience with inequality came from the news and photos of the Bangladesh war for independence. As soon as I could, I chose India of all the places in the world to travel to, visited Calcutta in 1983, and was overwhelmed by the visual impact the impromptu architecture had on my psyche. I have also lived in a rural village in Nepal as a Peace Corps volunteer for two years that resembles much of the urban villages I see in Indian cities. I have read depressing philosophies of Schopenhauer, Malthus and Spencer, but always come back to the strange attraction to the scenes of the vital necessity of creating a home in the most inhospitable circumstances. I have come to personally experience people who make their living there, and I am grateful for the access I have, to further my art inspiration from the cacophony of materials used for building materials, the ingenuity, and the haphazard aesthetic.”

Gillette is all geared to explore this aesthetic in Mumbai, in April. He says, “My plans are with artist Samir Parker as an extension of his ‘Tarp Project’ where he has put colourful tarps on the roofs of shanty villages in Mumbai as an art project. One plan of mine, if I can pull it off, is to have a life-size Disneyland Castle facade built in a shanty town for kids who just like me never got to go to Disneyland, complete with bouncy castles and Mickey Mouse dolls for everybody.”

Gillette’s solo show on slumscapes is scheduled to take place at Gregorio Escalante Gallery, California  in June 2017.

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