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James Jean: Process Rebus
To describe James Jean would be difficult. The visual artist has had the distinguished role of creating art through numerous fabrics of culture. Following his graduation from New York City’s School of Visual Art, Jean wasted no time in making his mark through the world of comics. Holding down a role at DC Comics was a springboard to being the visual lead behind Bill Willingham’s well-received Fables series. Throughout his comic book career, Jean has been on the receiving end of countless Eisner Awards, celebrating the very best in the comic book industry. Yet his scope and influence has extended far beyond that into the realm of popular culture with high-profile clients representing a veritable who’s who of publications and brands such as Prada, Philip Lim, The New York Times, Rolling Stone, Spin, ESPN, Atlantic Records, Target and Playboy.
Despite all this success through illustration, it was never the plan for Jean. The goal of becoming a painter was unfortunately side-tracked as illustrating became a powerful and lucrative draw. Almost a decade later, many fans are having trouble accepting Jean’s abandonment of the pen in favor of the paintbrush. Fellow artist Jasper Wong has an engaging back and forth about Jean’s roots, his relationship with David Choe, and finally his desire to focus solely on paintings.
The first time I stumbled across your name, I associated it to a Midwest cowboy. Maybe it was the consequence of your name’s similarities to Jesse James’s, but I immediately imagined you to be a gunslinger from a Podunk town with a penchant for loose women and trouble making. Obviously, this fantastical image of you was completely off base. I missed the mark by miles. You were actually born in Taiwan and raised in New Jersey. A far fetch from the Sergio Leone-esque Podunk towns that I imagined you hailing from. Looking at your work, there is definitely a clash and melding of East and West cultures. Can you tell us more about your influences and how it was growing up as a Taiwanese kid in the Garden State?
People are always skeptical that my name is real. It’s a romanization of my Chinese surname, but it sounds deceptively western. The name is an alliterative fantasy. Perhaps this confusion contributed to the crisis of identity I experienced as teenager in Podunk, NJ. It was a piston of angst that drove me into the arms of loose women and an ocean of liquor. I destroyed mailboxes and pirated software. I played in a band. A marching band. I had a Jewish girlfriend. In this void of culture I drew on notebooks, bathroom stall walls, and around the navels of dozing young girls, yielding to my wet black sharpie.
You came up in the illustration and comic game. In fact, you are a legend for the covers you did for the Fables series of comic books. I’m not going to lie, I’m a full-fledged comic geek in my own right. There are few things better than to cozy up next to colorful panels of tight-wearing superheroes and fantastical adventures. You have now left that world to pursue fine art in full force. How has that transition been? Does your past illustration work create a stigma for you in the fine art world?
The transition has been slow, but I am impatient. I’ve wanted to be a painter since I was 20, but to survive, I found work as an illustrator. My identity was obscured in the commercial success I found in my 20s. Now I’m trying to establish myself as the artist I intended to be. I’m not sure if there’s a stigma… I used to think there was but I’m beginning to find that people don’t really care as long as the work is good. Maybe it’s a game of stamina – if you do something long and hard enough, the culture will submit.
How has this progression to a more painterly sensibility affected your core fans from the illustration and comic days? Is there a way to straddle both or is it a natural progression of you as an artist?
Generally an illustrator is concerned with the creation of a picture, while a painter questions the nature of a picture. The latter approach tends to lead to something more open-ended and transgressive, raising more questions than answers. If my new work doesn’t alienate the fans of the illustration and comic book work, then I’m doing something wrong. But I hope those fans can grow with me as my work evolves. How’s that for straddling.
Aside from the brush, you are also skilled with the computer. Your digital pieces are incredible. However, the fine art world tends to look down upon work created with pixels on a monitor. It took decades upon decades for photography to be legitimized within the world of fine art. Do you think there is a possibility for digital art to be legitimized as well? Will we eventually see digital work gracing the walls of art museums? Has it already happened?
Sure, it’s already happened. Chiho Aoshima for example. Digital video work from Marco Brambilla. I’ve also been enjoying the work of the young art duo, Simmons and Burke.
A lot of artist tend to be solitary figures. Working alone in their studios and within their own minds. However, you seem to have an amazing group of friends that are highly supportive. They are there at every show whether it be in Los Angeles or across the Pacific in Hong Kong. One of these friends is David Choe, whom you share a studio with in Los Angeles that is aptly dubbed “The Secret Studio.” David Choe is in no ways a stranger to Hypebeast. Can you tell us more about your relationship with him?
Dave is my lover, the id to my ego.
How does it feel to work side by side with David Choe?
It feels like paradise on Earth. It feels like I’m marinating under a mountain of raw bulgogi, our love erupting into ropes of white gesso, power chords, and the sighs of a thousand strippers.
You have been searching high and low for the right gallery to represent you. Happenstance caused you to meet Martha Otero. Can you tell us more about your relationship with her? What are the qualities that you look for in a gallery and a gallerist?
We met by chance at M Cafe in West Hollywood. Martha has a great program, and I was so glad to finally find a space for the new body of work. It just felt like the right fit for my second solo show. She’s supportive of my development as a painter and didn’t pressure me to create a certain kind of work. She’s also one of the most laid back and nurturing gallerists I’ve ever met.
A lot of people find release through their art. Do you exorcize your own demons in your pieces?
I don’t consciously exorcize my demons. They emerge in unexpected ways, peeking out from the orifices of my subconscious. I actually don’t feel like I have any demons, but I suppose my paintings reveal otherwise… it feels anachronistic to be an expressive artist these days; I’m not supposed to reveal anything personal – the work must be cool and detached, with a simple motif that can be applied on anything anywhere.
These days we are seeing more and more artists working with high fashion labels. Takashi Murakami, Richard Price and Scott Campbell are just a few to be named.
In your own right, you have done the same with the work you have extensively done with Prada. A few seasons ago, a whole collection surrounded your art. Can you further elaborate on this collaboration? How does it feel to see people gracing product with your art?
Eric White recommended me to the design agency, 2×4, who hired me to create a mural for Prada’s NY and LA Epicenter stores. After I submitted my drawings, they asked me to create a second mural for their runway show in Milan, for which they incorporated the work into fabric prints and accessories. It just grew from there – the drawings were turned into advertisements, store environments, and I created an animation based on the drawings. Recently, they revived the artwork on a new perfume: Infusion de Rose. It feels good to see my work out there, serving a purpose greater than itself. If it happens to adorn beautiful women, I will not protest.
For the people that are new to your work, a book is slated to be released later this year. An epic compendium of your art titled REBUS. Can you tell us more about this amazing tome?
It’s my first monograph. Though I’m happy with my previous books, they were constrained by size, format and subject matter. REBUS collects and organizes the work in a way that reflects what I’ve done and what I aspire to do. It spans about a decade of work, from 2001-2011: paintings, digital work and drawings. If I die tomorrow, this book would be an acceptable epitaph, bound and gilded in bloody foil.
What does the future hold for James Jean?
Can’t say much now, but: www.ovmlove.com
We’re coming to the end and before you ride off into the sunset, do you have any last words for our readers?
Thanks for being there.
Introduction: Eugene Kan
Interview: Jasper Wong
Photography: Brandon Shigeta