James Jean: One-man art army

July 10, 2012 at 4:00 am (Articles / Interviews) (, , , , )

James Jean unedited interview/feature for Contemporary Art Philippines. Interview was conducted in January 2012, during Jean’s visit to Manila.

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James Jean in Manila

James Jean is tired after four full hours of signing for fans at Fully Booked, High Street, in the last leg of what has been a three-day marathon of giving talks and meeting with the country’s art and pop culture aficionados.

He admits that meeting such enthusiastic devotees of his work is “great for the self-esteem.”

“I think as an artist I tend to be very self-critical,” he says. “Working alone in the studio, your personal demons can tend to drive you a little crazy, so it’s nice to be injected back into society.”

The Filipino artistic society in particular, has embraced Jean so well that this is the second time he’s been invited to the country as a special guest of Fully Booked. But while Jean says it’s great to be back, the fan love he receives has taken its toll.

“I give away a little part of myself every time I sign something for a fan,” he says, with a weary smile.

A copious amount of attention is something the Taiwanese-American artist has had to get used to.

He initially made a name for himself as the cover artist of the Vertigo comics series Fables, where his ethereal imagery won him a slew of Eisner awards – the comics world’s equivalent of the Oscars – for Best Cover Artist.

snow white

Alongside comics, he took a series of commercial jobs for big-name clients, including the New York Times, Time Magazine, ESPN and fashion house Prada, which took Jean’s designs and inculcated them into scarves, bags and other fashion items.

No matter who he worked for though, Jean’s artistic signature remained indelible – fluid forms and exquisite detail, revealing figments from nursery rhymes and nightmares.

Evident in Jean’s illustration work are the influence of artists he has said he admires, including German artist Neo Rauch and American eccentric Henry Darger, who created similarly strange, surreal worlds.

While many of Jean’s fans continue to connect his name to Fables and comics, Jean’s passions decidedly lay elsewhere. Beginning 2007, he began uprooting himself from illustration to dive into the world of fine art. His first solo exhibit, Kindling, opened at the Jonathan Levine Gallery in New York back in 2009, to positive reviews.

Jean has worked with pen, ink and Photoshop, but when he talks about painting, it becomes apparent what his choice of medium is.

“It’s always been my original intent to be a painter,” he says. “As I started doing a lot of commercial work, a lot of opportunities came my way. Commercial work took me down interesting paths and I developed my chops in the illustration world.”

“Now, hopefully, I can come back and concentrate on what I think is the most pure and honest form of expression for me.”

It is with oil and paintbrush that Jean’s images seem to settle into their most natural forms. Here, the fairy tales planted in his earlier work grow unrestrained, stretching into epics and mythologies contained by the canvas.

This lessening of restraint is also reflected in the way Jean works as a painter, as opposed to as an illustrator.

“These days I tend to work directly on the canvas, with no sketches,” he says. “That’s actually how I started painting in art school. As I started doing illustration, I had to make a sketch and translate that sketch into a finished work, and I developed this whole process of working.”

“Now I’m going back to my roots, as if I were an 18-year-old painting student,” Jean says. “It’s really romantic, the idea of just painting and teasing something out of the ether rather than having to mechanically produce something.”

Although Jean seems to have his foot through the door of the painting world, now with a separate fan base that knows him more for his paintings than his earlier illustration work, he says the transition from commercial to fine art is still an ongoing process.

“It’s kind of like gender reassignment—injecting hormones and hoping change will happen. You’re waiting for things to accelerate and your body to change, but I’m still in mid-cycle, I guess,” he laughs. “It’s a long process but I think it’s going well.”

2011 was a busy year for the 31-year-old artist, with Jean mounting his second solo exhibit Rebus, at the Martha Otero gallery in Los Angeles. Rebus is also the title of Jean’s colossal 256–page monograph which came out soon after. Jean also launched OVM, his online store featuring jewelry and fashion designed by him.

“I’ve always been very productive,” says Jean. “I’ve had publishing projects come out every year or so, and I’ve become comfortable doing signings, and engaging with the fans, and updating my websites and doing new projects.”

There seems to be no shortage of these new projects, with the possibility of doing animation, designing a video game or making apps in the near future. Jean is also on the look-out for a venue for yet another one-man show.

As for any concrete plans though, Jean simply says, “We’ll see what happens.”

There may even be a return to illustration, although not the kind which sustained him in his early years.

“I’ve always wanted to make books,” he says. “So I think eventually I might write a story and illustrate it, kind of illuminate the texts.”

Jean describes himself as a one-man army facing a whirlwind of possibilities. But even one-man armies need time to rest.

“I do wanna simplify eventually,” he says. “Hopefully soon, and then concentrate on painting. Sometimes I feel like I can be spread a little too thin, but if I see the work is starting to suffer, then I’ll start to make some cuts.”

When not painting, Jean says he’ll catch up on TV shows like Lost or Breaking Bad. But like anyone who thrives on creating, Jean won’t be out of the picture for long.

“I love working,” he says. “I like creating new things. My practice is very diverse – if I don’t feel like painting, I’ll work on the computer, or do some design work. There’s no routine. There’s always someone who wants something, there’s always a deadline I have planned. That’s what keeps it fresh.”

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James Jean images taken from Wikimedia, James Jean’s website and Civilian Reader. Copyright belongs to their respective owners. Interview snapshot courtesy of Tinka Herrera.

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