In Elvis, Jesus and Santa, one of three photographic works by Jonathan Gillette at Bodybuilder & Sportsman, the three icons are played by two of the artist’s uncles and a cousin. They hold hands, linked in friendly cooperation–or in some surreal low-rent pageant. Though he was sometimes discouraged from doing so in school, Gillette often uses his family as inspiration for his artwork, which here includes photographs and a video. Elvis is Gillette’s Uncle Roger, who was brain damaged in childhood by Rocky Mountain spotted fever. Roger takes pleasure in the smallest things, Gillette says–“Getting a canned Coke was like winning the lottery”–and made him see that “every moment could be heightened to a new awareness.” Roger once decorated his room with masking tape, not only resealing toy packages in an apparent attempt to make them look new but also placing the tape in layers over his furniture.

Gillette says that a typical Friday evening’s entertainment with his parents in the small town of Fairview, Tennessee, where he grew up, was getting dinner at Shoney’s, then going to Wal-Mart. His father sells dry-cleaning supplies, and though Gillette liked to draw, he knew very little about the art world. At Union University in Jackson, Tennessee–a private Christian school–he majored in art and graphic design partly because that course of study required only one math class. The art history sequence included only one week on contemporary art, but Gillette had already begun reading art magazines–and in his last year he “took on a new style every week.” Originally his parents were dubious about him going to grad school, but for Christmas 2001 they gave him multiple duplicates of his slides so he could apply.

At the School of the Art Institute, Gillette at first painted pictures of toilets, kitchen sinks, and a cereal bowl because they reminded him of his “overlooked” uncle. At the critique of those works, he says, “I almost wanted to start crying. I didn’t understand what was being asked of me. I thought good painting was good composition and good color–and I was asked why I was even making a painting.” After that, one adviser suggested that using his family as a subject was a problem, and Gillette could see that when some other students did so, they’d get stuck in their sentimental attachments. He started questioning his own motives for painting this way, seeing it as a roundabout and perhaps ill-advised means of trying to get closer to his relatives. Then another adviser, painter Gaylen Gerber, helped Gillette rediscover his family as an inspiration. And critic Jerry Saltz, who also teaches, pointed out that most people don’t share Gillette’s Southern Baptist roots and suggested that he challenge himself to “offer something for everyone.”

Though there’s humor in Elvis, Jesus and Santa, Gillette wasn’t aiming for kitsch but instead for work that’s honest and sincere. He let his relatives choose which costumes to wear because he wanted to show how people attach themselves to icons as a way of finding meaning in life. They’re holding hands, he says, because “it’s about my hope that they all get along.” He’s also photographed Batman hugging Evel Knievel, and in another work the Lone Ranger and Darth Vader riding on the Lone Ranger’s horse. In this exhibit, The Congregation shows a view from the pulpit of the church Gillette attended, depicting what he calls “200 people all looking to connect to something larger than themselves.”

No family connection is evident in the diptych Flower Garden, two photographs of colorful silk flowers arranged on walls at a right angle, creating a little environment. But they were inspired, Gillette says, by a beloved aunt with Parkinson’s who can’t tend her flowers anymore and arranges fake ones. A video on display, Christmas 2004, shows Roger being dressed to play Santa, as he was throughout Gillette’s childhood. “Some of your highest moments,” Gillette says, “are in stepping outside of yourself. I’m also attracted to my uncle’s vulnerability. If you can make yourself truly vulnerable in life, maybe you’re truly living.”

Jonathan Gillette

When: Through Fri 9/2

Where: Bodybuilder & Sportsman, 119 N. Peoria, 2C

Info: 312-492-7261

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yvette Marie Dostatni.