Cars, bars, beaches … and Mickey? Three artists converge in an art exhibit inspired by California life and culture

By Patrick Tindall

DSC_1767No, this isn’t your typical day trip to Disneyland or a walk down the infamous Hollywood Walk of Fame.

This is an exhibit that doesn’t seek to view the distinct culture of Southern California through rose-tinted glasses, this is an exhibit for the rest of us.

Immediately upon walking into the “Pop Not Soda” exhibit at Riverside City College, viewers are invited in, not by the sounds of classical piano filling the air, but by the sounds of loud, gritty punk music shaking the walls. Already this is not your typical art gallery showing, you’re walking into something more.

“Pop Not Soda” is a collaborative art exhibit between three Southern California artists, Jeffrey Gillette, Craig “Skibs” Barker and Robert Nelson. Each artist takes on a unique perspective of Southern California culture that isn’t necessarily the most glamorous side that is so easily accessible on television and in movies, but is definitely full of style nonetheless.

Mixed-media artist Gillette shows exhibit viewers a side of California as seen through someone who has seen a lot of the world.

“I’m a pessimist,” Gillette said. “I take the worst case scenarios of the visually decrepit parts of the world, slums of Detroit, India, the Philippines … and I juxtapose them with one of the (topically) ‘nicest’ areas I’ve ever experienced, Southern California.”

From Gillette’s exaggerated slums of Venice Beach as seen from underneath a freeway overpass, to dilapidated representations of lifeguard towers each with a tiny Mickey Mouse figurine hidden inside, each piece allude to the beach culture that California is famous for, but set in a strange, dystopian world.

“Mickey to me is a beautiful graphic design,” Gillette said. “Mickey stands out for me so much as: America, innocence… entertainment as diversion from suffering and a standard of acceptable affluence and awareness.”

The ever-present Mickey Mouse references in Gillette’s works are equal parts whimsical and depressing. Mickey seeks to point viewers, not to the magic in the landscapes, but to the affluent culture and subsequent disillusion within California.

Craig “Skibs” Barker’s work is a bit different from the other artists, but definitely has a unique perspective. His work has a retro feel and he utilizes contemporary references to California culture and the heyday of Hollywood.

“The retro imagery is a constant in my work and is definitely intended,” Barker said. “I also like to combine it with contemporary images as well. That gives it a juxtaposition of old and new… memory and reality.”

Barker’s work is reminiscent of California culture with bright, eye-popping colors, vintage style portraits of beautiful women, a center display of mixed-media video displays and hand painted strips of wood in bright colors bring together each piece which give the distinct impression of being perpetually stuck in a retro-futuristic beach town set in the 1950s.

The third portion of the exhibit is done by contemporary artist Robert Nelson. His paintings and canvas designs have a playful quality that is a mix of old and new themes of sex, famous film characters and classic art mixed with contemporary design.

The work speaks to the dual nature of the exhibit also adding neoclassical style and contemporary moods throughout, complete with retro patterns, muted colors and elements of pop culture surrealism.

There is a juxtaposition of sex and violence in each piece such as the sexy and alluring images of women in bikinis posing in front of crashed cars which is a callback to old school California style and also hints at contemporary Hollywood culture. Nelson’s work speaks for itself in such a way that is immediately accessible to classic art lovers as well as younger exhibit viewers.

The exhibit is the brainchild of RCC’s quad art gallery curator Leslie Brown. The artists had not actually worked on the exhibit together but came together rather naturally.

“Although I had seen their work previously, I hadn’t ever met the other artists in the show,” Barker said. “So, as I went into the gallery I was pleasantly surprised at how well the show flowed without actually working together.”

Despite not working together beforehand, the art all works together cohesively because each artist brings their own unique perspectives to the exhibit telling an interesting story of California lifestyle, pop culture and dissected Hollywood dreams as viewed through the lens of a disillusioned native Los Angelean.

“Pop Not Soda” is on display in the RCC quad art gallery until April 3.