Joy as Tactic: On the Art of Michael Gillette

One image from Michael Gillette's incredible series, Little Angels. I highly recommend his monograph, "Drawn in Stereo."

As Guy Debord argues, the contemporary has insinuated itself into the very fabric of our being. We are inundated with images that lay claim to our most intimate selves — how we cry, love, feel, interact. We are occupied by the myths and desires propagated by capitalism, by the corporate will to profit: we believe, deep down, that the new gadget will set us free, make us whole, bring us joy.

But within this occupation lie moments, opportunities, spaces of dissent. There are what Deleuze and Guattari might call lines of flight, passages out of the occupied spaces of identity, a deterritorialization of self and world. Rock & roll has played a particularly poignant role in the spectacle and the constitution of selves and society. It has forged and fomented a variety of postures and possibilities — not all lines of flight, mind you — from angry revolt to masculine and particularly phallic bravado to the cloying nostalgia of classic rock radio.

A conspicuous aspect to rock & roll is that it was never only a sonic movement. It was, from the beginning, a visual movement. We can literally picture rock & roll — from Elvis to Stanley "Mouse" Miller and beyond. We see The Beatles in that crosswalk, Mick Jagger gyrating, Stevie Nicks swirling. Like all kids from a certain era, I'd put the record on and then sit with the album cover, studying every last detail. Two in particular scared me with their promise and possibility. One was the cover of Fleetwood Mac's "Rumors" which, with its idiotic sexual innuendo and complex psychosexual politics, titillated and confused me and let me know an entire universe awaited me with pain and pleasure (I was, like, seven).

The other was the back of The Grateful Dead's "Aoxomoxoa" with its pastoral scene of hippie families. Oh, man that one still haunts me! Were they free of the bourgeois world I lived in? What did that entail? Did they have beds and showers? Did they go to school? That image lingers in the periphery of my consciousness, a possibility of freedom and a possibility of stinky horror.

I am not saying much when I say that the intensity and affect of the music worked with the intensity and affect of the image to create many possible modes of self. To a lot of people, it was — and remains — a literal line of flight out of the mundanity, and often violence, of their closed worlds. Michael Gillette was one such person.

And while rock & roll was creating new — and reviving old — myths of self and society, the art world was playing a particular role in fomenting different kinds of lines of flight. Warhol, Lichtenstein, Richard Prince, Marc Lafia, John Baldessari: all these artists grab images of the capitalist engine as they pass through the ether and ourselves and redistribute them, forging cracks, folds, and territories. They jam the system, revealing its mechanics — its environment, as Marshall McLuhan would say. But they do other things, as well, each in their own way. Warhol reveled in the freedom the endless imagistic production of self affords. Lichtenstein denuded the myths, allowing us a certain distance from their affect. Baldessari, Prince, and Lafia — each in their own distinctive manner — give us the engine of image production as a plaything.

Michael Gillette does something else entirely. He doesn't jam the system. Nor does he merely perpetuate it. While his work seems familiar — there is no doubt a whiff of nostalgia for the promise of punk — he breaks cliché through one of the most difficult tactics: joy. He takes up the images of rock & roll that surround us — the elaborate mythology of the psychedelic, of Woodstock, of "Rolling Stone" and "Spin" — and inhabits them, lending the mythology a pathos evacuated by the the profit motive and cock rock disc jockeys.

Look at his Little Angels series. Here, he paints portaits of dead rock and pop stars — Biggie, Amy Whinehouse, Whitney, Jimi and Janis, Kurt — but as children. The pathos is achingly poignant, almost unbearable. In these faces, painted with just their their name, we see and feel lives lived and lives lost, all at once. The fact that it's just their first name echoes twice: it is how children designate themselves — you can see Amy as child, "Hi, I'm Amy!" — and it's how they are mythologized by the spectacle: you hear Amy and you know to whom it refers (it's the title of her postmortem documentary: the one name suffices, amplifying the mythos). But by mixing these two — the innocence of youth with the spectacle of image — we live the life of the myth in its beauty, its pain, its horror, its exploitation, its longing, its aspiration, its villainy, its promise.


Gillette is in perhaps a unique position. While Warhol played at labor with his Factory — although I feel his best paintings were his corporate illustrations — Gillette's art is often literally labor, the product of a corporate commission, illustrating for the likes of Levi's and "Spin" and Penguin Books, (although not exclusively). While the art world proper might frown on such things, it is what gives Gillette's art its power, posture, and particular poignance. (And isn't all art a commodity? Isn't the distinction specious at best? Don't we all know this by now?) He is poised at the the very juncture where the spectacle is produced. And while some artists might ironically sneer, Gillette takes it as an opportunity to lend pathos where there is too often none.

There is no doubt an implicit critique that runs through Gillette's work. By taking up images of what we know, by taking up the myths of rock & roll as artifice, he is exposing the machinery of myth-making, revealing the environment of spectacle production. We create these myths, he tells us. And by revealing, and reveling in, the pathos cliché and nostalgia eliminate, he points to the dehumanization inherent in capitalist production.

But Gillette does this all through a surprising technique: through an abundance of love! An abundance of joy! He finds life where there was none! I see him closer to Jeff Koons than, say, Roy Lichtenstein or Richard Prince. If Lichtenstein affords us a certain critical remove and Prince a critique of art production both through a certain delirium of image appropriation, Koons loves the glitter and shine of the pop image. But he takes images of Michael Jackson and moves them into a posthuman affect: his Michael Jackson and Bubbles is not of this world, the pop image elevated to pure adorned glitter. There is no human pathos there, only a toothy sheen. Gillette, on the other hand, discovers a transcendence within the human-all-too-human, within the mythologies that we create. We feel the love but also the pain. And that, alas, is the affirmation of this life. That is joy.

We see it in his line which I want to call voluptuous, generous, adoring. Look at his illustrations for "American Hustle" (one of the great American movies of the past few decades). Look at the glimmering love. There is no irony. Nor is there capitulation to the spectacle, selling for the sake of profit. Rather, there is a love of it all, a generous eye and line, emanating pathos. His line, his gesture, is so effusive, so voluminous, so palpable that we feel the humanity within the myth.

At times, there is a wit that is joyous and affirmative, as well. Look at his Elvis. It's funny. It's true, somehow. There seems at first to be some snark, Elvis love as Americana. But take a second look. There is no snark. Yes, Elvis love embodies a certain Americana. And vice versa. And that is how we make myths, yes. And it's glorious and strange and fun and funny. Gillette sees and enjoys it all — and let's us do the same.

And then look: it's Michael Cera, all sweet nerdy innocence. How are we to stand towards this? How are we to feel? There is a nod of recognition, sure. But then something else happens. In its glaring analogness — an unseemly word but conceptually apropos as Gillette is relentlessly non-digital — a personal aside I happen to know: he doesn't have a cell phone —  in this human touch, we see so much: myth making but also the power of myth to forge possibilities, of Cera's distinctive promise of unpretentious humanity. What Gillette gives us is the most difficult mode of critique — critique not through alienation, not through No-saying, but through an abundance of love: through joy.

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