Full Exposure – Artist James Gilbert knows our intimate details, whether he likes it or not


Whether you have a Facebook account or a Twitter feed or nothing at all, the changing ideas of privacy affect us all. We let people know where we work, where we live, our beliefs and opinions, what we eat and drink and where we are this very minute. And the thing is, younger generations see no problem with it. Full transparency, they vote.

You could say that “transparency” is also the operative word in James Gilbert’s work, which comes to Contemporary Arts Forum this Thursday as part of First Thursdays. Instead of paintings or video or dance, viewers will encounter Gilbert himself right when they walk in, high above the desk, sewing underwear out of plastic, a material that leaves little to the imagination. Don’t worry, you don’t have to wear it. But visitors will have an opportunity to hang their ‘wear all around the gallery. That’s a lot of tighty whiteys. The work is “accumulative sculpture,” he says.

Made from industrial plastic, the underwear is just one of many objects that Gilbert has sewn together. He’s made suits, dresses (some with elaborate frills) and tops. The plastic has also been formed into larger installations, like planes, arrival lounges and life rafts.

And yes, Gilbert does try on all his plastic wear for size and scale, but it’s nothing you’d want to wear, he says.

“I have made some outfits for my own openings,” he says. “But they are steamy when you wear them. They don’t breathe.”

Gilbert says his work examines our identity in this Web 2.0 era, where we are all walking around metaphorically wearing clothes that everybody can see through. And, he says, we seem to be OK with that.

“I’m exploring how much of that intimate information we’re putting out there,” he says. “Do we even care about privacy anymore? It surprises me how much information people are willing to give over. People see the notoriety that other people get by exposing themselves, and they want it. Celebrity and pop culture drives it. But it’s also a shared and learned behavior.”

No surprise to learn, then, that Gilbert has no Web site or online presence. No Facebook for him.

“I don’t see myself as putting myself on a reality show,” he says. “I’m a private person. I keep a journal. I don’t tell people all my stories for that reason.”

But the Los Angeles-based artist, by dint of his locale, brings in other issues through the work: the invisible labor that makes our clothes in the sweatshops of Los Angeles and abroad; the division between the domestic self-reliance and mass-production; the division between designer and sewer.

Gilbert learned how to sew in the last four years, but he has a background in the theater. He still paints, draws and makes videos, but learning to sew has helped him accomplish a lot of goals, he says. He probably makes a nice suit, too.

Warhol became known as the “Campbell Soup guy” for a while. Is Gilbert ready to known as Mr. Plastic Underpants?

“I’m cool with that,” he says. “In 20 years, if somebody knows me as that, I’m fine.”

When: 4 to 8 p.m. Thursday
Where: Contemporary Arts Forum, Paseo Nuevo (upstairs)
Cost: Free
Information: (805) 966-5373, www.sbcaf.org

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