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Lord, What Fools This Artist’s Figures Be

April 16, 1993

Every person (formerly Everyman) used to be a heroic figure, but Mitchell Taylor Gillette regards his/her contemporary incarnation as a fool – pathetic rather than tragic, ridiculous rather than comic, and doomed to perpetual despair beyond any hope of redemption.

The fools who populate the paintings Gillette is showing at Nexus engage in pointless activities that underscore the futility of their existence. Mostly they appear to be killing time, waiting for Godot, perhaps, or trying to figure out how they came to be fools.

In the largest and most complex painting in the show, Gillette depicts a group of fools “too near the hellmouth.” It’s a chaotic scene of crashing stage sets and surreal violence in which the fools are hapless prisoners of fate.

There’s nothing in these paintings to suggest that we’re supposed to be looking in a mirror, although if we’re not looking at self-portraits, then who else could these fools be? That is to say, there aren’t any contemporary visual clues; in that sense, Gillette’s bizarre tableaux are timeless.

Gillette possesses an unusually fertile imagination, which enables him to create allegories that are simultaneously trenchant and entertaining. They can be either historical or contemporary, as you prefer, because the signals are mixed. The characters are modified commedia dell’arte but the visual language, and especially his high-voltage palette, is pure comic book.

Gillette portrays his fools as bundles of contradictions. They possess sleek, muscular bodies, but you wouldn’t describe them as graceful. Their faces are morose and clownish; they’re literal bluenoses, and some of the women tend to baldness.

Their dress is correspondingly eccentric. The men in particular – and it’s not always easy to tell the sexes apart – sport painted-on “tights”; that is, their bodies are tinted orange or green, as if they were wearing transparent Spandex. Their clothes confirm their state of foolishness as definitively as if they were branded in capital letters across the forehead.

As you pick your way through Gillette’s garden of unearthly stimulations and provocations, you’re bound to notice that these paintings are beautifully crafted, right down to their convincing trompe l’oeil “frames.”

He strives for a duality here, too – the glossy, enamel-like colors and especially the prominent highlights signal flatness and volume in the same glance.

In terms of current art fashion, Gillette’s fools defy categorization. They’re an acquired taste but one that’s agreeable even if you can’t identify all the ingredients.


Comic Surrealism Applied To Human Figures

June 30, 1995

The fools and buffoons that once populated the paintings of Mitchell Taylor Gillette have given way to more sober paradigms of human frailty, vanity and spiritual despair. They remain bizarre, neo-mannerist caricatures, but now they elicit pathos rather than humor.

The new figures appear in a series of six large paintings at Snyderman Gallery. The exhibition also includes two smaller paintings and five studies in pastel and colored pencil for the large oils.

Although the new paintings are intellectually more ambitious than the earlier ones, they’re executed in the familiar Gillette style, which is a kind of comic surrealism distinguished by odd mannerist distortions of the human figures.

Gillette’s paintings might be taken for cartoons if their subject matter were less serious. The figures, modeled with an airbrushed slickness, are abnormally muscular, and their feet are so large as to look prehensile. All are depicted in states of psychological, physical or cognitive deprivation.

For instance, the figure in Automatism holds the top of his empty skull, and stands amid mounds of smoldering books as a symbol of society’s hostility to the life of the mind. Venus of the Closet, ridiculously garbed in a diaphanous tutu, tries to choose a new head from a closet full of damaged ones as if she were trying on dresses. Similarly, Bachelor Bride has a selection of facial features at her disposal.

Gillette’s view of human society is only superficially comic; essentially it’s rather bleak. One may be diverted by his superb technique, his spatial tricks and his descriptive eccentricities, such as a skirt growing out of a figure’s hips, but the gravity of his message is always plain.

These paintings encourage the viewer to take Gillette’s musings about human behavior more to heart. The dichotomy between his quirky visual language and his message remains difficult to reconcile, but the images are the kind that stick in the memory.