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Contrast Magazine
James Jean

Words / Carolyn Mirante
Photography / Brandon Shigeta

James Jean is an enigmatic figure. Trained as an illustrator, Jean acquired a cult following with his unique and meticulous style. In 2008, he surprised the world by leaving the realm of commercial illustration for the more structured world of fine art. His first foray into this realm—a solo exhibition at the Martha Otero Gallery in LA—was met with great success. Today, nearly two years after the opening of a much-speculated-on exhibition at the Tilton Gallery in NYC (Parallel Lives), Jean opens up about his life, creative inspirations, and what the future has in store for him.

Carolyn: I understand you got your start with the arts in illustration. How did you come into that?
James Jean: During and after art school, I would do anything that required drawing or painting to make a living. After getting rejected from major book publishers and doing a few small spots for the New York Times, I luckily landed a gig drawing covers for DC Comics, which turned into a regular assignment for seven years. During that time, my commercial art career really took off despite my intention to focus on my personal work.

Following your show at the Tilton Gallery in New York (Parallel Lives), there was much speculation about the personal details of your life. It goes without saying that personal changes can affect your work, but it strikes me as doing a disservice to you as an artist to focus solely around those effects. I’m more interested in looking at some of the seminal, early sources that have influenced your work. Can you tell me a little about those?
I would have to say I was mostly interested in music as a teenager. For some reason, I was obsessed with playing the trumpet, and though I had an interest in drawing, I focused all of my energy in practicing jazz riffs in the basement. My family and neighbors couldn’t stand the infernal noise coming from beneath the house, but at least they knew I wasn’t doing heroin like my jazz idols: Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, the list goes on. I never became very good, but the sensation of creating sound through convoluted metal tubing was addicting. Despite my obsession with the trumpet, I applied to art school, and that’s where I traded one addiction for another: drawing.


How do you think challenging life events affect your work? Do you see them altering your creativity in a largely positive or negative way?
In Feb. 2013, I was overwhelmed by a variety of things happening in my life and I left the country and disconnected from everything. No bank accounts, no credit cards, no website, no social media. I moved to the Philippines and traded paintings with someone I knew there in exchange for a place to live. After close to two years living abroad and out of my suitcase, I’m trying to get my life back to normal. This adventure has definitely been a positive experience, but I’m not sure if my work has become better since there’s been too much tumult around for me to get a breath and experiment with something new. To get back out of the dark cave into which I was cast, I’ve had to return to older themes and motifs to trade for travel, room and board. However, I’ve become more interested in photography these days, so that will definitely inform my work in the near future.

I was really struck by something you said in a recent article for Juxtapoz; namely that you wondered what life would have been like had you not encountered challenging life impediments because you do your best work when you’re at peace. Would you say that you are finally at such a place right now?
Yes, I’m emotionally at peace. There are still challenges that remain, but I’m trying to find a proper space now to work, something permanent. For me, it’s important that my surroundings to be stable, so that I can stir up entropy on canvas.

You are one of the few artists to make the more-or-less seamless transition from a more technical form of expression (i.e, illustration) to the more discursive, institutionally-based world of fine art. What was that transition like?
I’m still in that period of transition. But that’s assuming there are these two static worlds that never mingle, when it seems that culture and money, in particular, is making that membrane more porous.

You do a good job of keeping your roots in illustration alive in your paintings. Can you provide a little insight on what it is like navigating that boundary?
I used to be very self conscious about this, but at this point, I try not to be so self-aware. Frequently my instincts about what a curator or gallerist would think about the work are wrong.

What are a few of the conceptual elements—anything from fragments like sights, smells and sounds to more complete formulations like memories, books, music, etc.—that inspire you the most in your work?
Observation. Memory. Imagination. These are the principle aspects of my work. At the one end, I want to void any meaning and intent in the process of painting, and purely let the act of observation dictate what happens on the surface. And at the opposite end, I want to see how my internal prejudices and predilections will influence my drawings, that is, to work purely from memory and imagination, to see the mannerisms that develop along the way. Then I’ll grow to hate those mannerisms, and I’ll seek an approach that’s stripped bare of any kind of style or “ism.”

Are you working on any new projects right now?
I have a new book coming out with a Japanese publisher. It’s called, “Xenograph” and will feature about 288 pages of new work and material, focusing mostly on my drawings. The publisher is hoping to introduce my work to a Japanese audience.

What are your plans for the next five years?
I would like to continue to focus on painting and to have more shows and exhibitions. The idea of it seems so simple and pure, but life has a way of getting complicated.

This feature can be found printed over 14 pages in Contrast 12

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