Looking at Jeff Gillette’s post-apocalyptic paintings of shanty towns and garbage strewn slums juxtaposed with a ruined and decrepit Disneyland kinda makes you think he must have been mighty pissed off he never got to Mickey Mouse’s cartoon theme park when he was a kid. But that ain’t quite how it goes. In fact, it was almost the other way around. Gillette was a college dropout when he volunteered for the Peace Corps and traveled to Nepal in India, where he witnessed great beauty and wonder, alongside a grim world of poverty, exploitation, and slums as far as the eye could see. “No pictures,” one guide told him, but Gillette sneaked off a few snaps.
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.
He eventually returned to the States and set up home in Orange County, home of Disneyland. Looking back at his photographs and rerunning his memories, the two worlds kinda merged. But still, Gillette does freely admit that maybe not getting to Disneyland as a kid threw him off or maybe:
...my own crappy childhood makes me want to tarnish the feigned joy of a pre-pubescent wonderland for others, or tap into the suspect view of others that see the whole system askance, with the Disney corporation being emblematic of society’s attempt to mask over the overwhelming ills. Maybe me seeing so much of the real world of polluted, overpopulated, impoverished cities has made me feel that a place that proclaims itself to be the ‘The Happiest Place on Earth’ is painfully absurd.
When he was in Nepal, Gillette read Schopenhauer which chimed with a belief that world was a miserable wreck ‘cuz it was ruled by irrationality. Tying this in with own thoughts on Buddhism—we’re here to suffer—gave Gillette a small epiphany.
He started painting pictures of landfill landscapes, “Slumscapes,” or what he terms as “Too-Realism”—images of the what the world is really like for millions of people while the rest of us are caught up in our own little private Disneylands.
Born in Michigan in 1959, Gillette has been painting his Slumscapes featuring Disney characters since 1990. His work was the main inspiration for Banksy’s own theme park exhibition Dismaland in 2015. Gillette’s first Slumscape painting featured Calcutta slums with an image of Mickey Mouse screenpainted upside down on top of the canvas. His work is part satire, part comment:
“I iconocolise stuff. I take stuff, pick at it and f**k with it. When I start messing with something, I see it as an homage. The worst dig at someone is to ignore them. If I bring something up — Disney or Dismaland — it’s a form of flattery in some way, otherwise I wouldn’t bother with it.”
See more of Gillette’s work here.
Previously on Dangerous Minds:
‘Sicko-Delic’: Luminous rednecks, grotesque goons and Day-glo freaks
‘I replaced Donald Trump with his Disney animatronic figure and honestly, it’s an improvement’
Disney princesses reimagined as cement mixers
Disney’s depressing rejection letter to a woman, 1938
Like Francis Bacon painted something Walt Disney puked-up: Gregory Jacobsen’s ugly beautiful art
Mickey Mouse meets Joy Division (official Disney merchandise!)