James Jean and His Eternal Journey
An exhibition by James Jean, who began his career as an illustrator and has since moved over to fine art and commercial art, is underway in Seoul. It's the largest of his shows to date. We sat down with Jean in that dreamlike and peculiar world of his.
The name James Jean must be familiar for those who are fans of graphic novels and Hollywood films, or are interested in fashion. Jean got his name out in his early 20s as the cover artist for DC Comics' 'Fables' series. Jean collected a slew of awards for his covers that encapsulated fascinating stories and creative ideas. After getting his start as an illustrator, Jean began to focus on painting in 2008. Since then, he has been active in fields like fashion and films, while blurring the line between fine art and commercial art. Jean famously painted the stunning, emerald-tinted poster for the film “The Shape of Water”.
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The Shape of Water, 2017

“I expect them to enjoy me, eternal journey, and creativity.”
Artist James Jean
But even if you've never heard of James Jean, that's okay, too. And here's your chance to find out more about him. LOTTE Museum of Art is currently hosting Jean's exhibition, “Eternal Journey”, which encompasses Jean's career over the past 20 years. Jean has had shows in New York, Tokyo and Los Angeles, among other stops, and this is his biggest show to date. There are some 500 works on display, including his sketchbook drawings, 'Fables' series covers, original posters for films and six large paintings specially completed for this exhibition. (And looking at his sketches of human bodies, for which he said he did his research at New York Public Library and the Metropolitan Museum of Art as a college student, it's easy to see where he gets his delicate touch from.) The exhibition presents a world somewhere between the East and the West, between the past and the present, a place that he built while exploring his own identity.
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Descendents - Blue Wood, 2019, Acrylic on canvas, 335.2×1097.2cm ⓒ 2019 James Jean

If you walk past the dark passage, which reminds you of the Lethe river of unmindfulness or a path back to Jean's childhood, you will come to 'Descendents-Blue Wood.' At 10 meters long, the huge painting about five cardinal colors is one of the six new paintings. It depicts boys that seem to be flying between clouds and flowers in full bloom. It's so breathtakingly gorgeous, because of such elegant lines, detailed description and unique sense of colors. There's something entirely different on the other side of such an alluring imagery. Takashi Murakami calls Jean "an artist of the narrative world." Trying to find symbolism and metaphors from layers of Jean's works is always interesting. The more you look at such a strange and beautiful world, the more curious you grow about Jean.
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James Jean at LOTTE Museum of Art

Q. What were you like as a child?
A. I was born in Taiwan and moved to the United States at three. Growing up in New Jersey, I had a difficulty feeling like belonging to, and I felt kind of isolated. That gave me a lot of time to focus on my internal world, and to use my imagination to kind of escape from external world. When I was a teenager, I discovered comic books. That was the only creative outlet that was around me. I didn't know or think about museums, gallery, out-world, even about paintings. I could only put myself on comic books. Never knew how to draw, learning English. Improved my English skills from comic books.

Q. Many people find in your art works Asian influences in terms of material, method and mystique, and assume that it is due to your Asian American heritage. What do you think of this interpretation?
A. I don't really think of myself as Asian American. I don't feel like I really belong anywhere. So, I am just floating. At the most reductive level, I am just making pictures by using whichever methods and materials that mesh best with my sensibilities. Much like Giuseppe Castiglione, who integrated Western painting techniques with traditional Chinese silk scroll painting, my work is an amalgamation of Eastern and Western influences. Most of my work has focused on an imaginary world removed from real world concerns, but I think as the work matures, I will begin to address the repressed cultural conflicts at work within me in a more direct and recognizable way.

Q. Let's talk about your new paintings unveiled at this exhibition. They are six large paintings based on the five cardinal colors. And they seem to have captured one particular scene from a series of tales.
A. That's accurate. I think I tend to show and create a long journey. When I saw this space in the LOTTE Museum that has this incredible long huge wall, I immediately had the idea to do with a long continuous images. That's how I started creating these long wide panoramic pictures. And you know, I've always worked concerning with creating narrative, characters and environment, based on the concept of the five cardinals colors, to make it more specific to Koreans. That was the seed for all of the exhibition.
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Aviary - Red Fire, 2019, Acrylic on canvas, 304.8×624.8cm ⓒ 2019 James Jean

Q. Though colors are the main theme, the likes of red and blue aren't expressed so outwardly. That's quite impressive.
A. Sometimes we have too much freedom, it’s paralyzing. So it will be supposed to start with simple frame work for creating new body. So the five cardinal colors were merely the starting point. And then for the simple concept of color and elements, I was able to create the entire universe of characters. So one of the passages is a color of blue, element of wood, but the sky is orange and the ocean is green. That makes result more surprising and unexpected.

Q. The color is one element that stands out in your works. How do you usually pick which colors to use?
A. I tend to focus quite a bit on selecting the color palette. I put a lot of work into selecting and placing colors, so that objects in the paintings move dynamically.
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Whirlpool - Black Water, 2019, Acrylic on canvas, 304.8×1005.8cm ⓒ 2019 James Jean

Q. How difficult is it to maintain your delicate touch when working on large paintings?
A. Working at large paintings needs getting closer and far away. So I push and pull all the elements, working very close, and standing back to see the entire things. Usually with large paintings, you need to engage your whole body. A lot of it is very physical

Q. How many hours do you work on a typical day?
A. Pretty much always working. Before, I was always working, and now with family I set the schedule usually 11:00 a.m., to 7:00 p.m. It's regular office work schedule. At 7, I have dinner with family and then my kids sleep around 9:30 or 10, and I work from 10 to some more hours (laughs).
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James Jean and 'Descendents-Blue Wood' © LOTTE Museum of Art

Q. What does the 'Descendants' boy character represent in your painting?
A. I think I've been drawing that boy character for a long time. It used to disappear for a while in different types of painting. But for my son, when he was born, he returned. He didn't have his name. It is the universal character that represents kind of innocence, part of world around him, kind of dangerous.

Q. Flowers are a favorite of yours as well.
A. I like flowers, so we have fresh flowers in our house. I think the way I draw naturally reflects overlapping patterns, shapes, and flowers. I take pictures of flowers, japans flowers arrangements. I think I can all understand how we see flowers, the beauty and it decays, quickly disappears.

Q. They seem to resemble to way you sometimes tell dark tales with beautiful imagery.
A. I like many different textures and layers to be able to be read over a long period of time. I want to be able to understand them for the painting or other kinds of elements, and have the stories over times. There's always beauty of the image first, then, it comes with darker elements in stories.
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Aurelians, 2016, Acrylic on canvas, 152.4×183cm ⓒ 2019 James Jean

Q. Where do you usually get inspirations from?
A. I constantly take in information from news, podcasts, things I see in other exhibition even just happening in my artwork itself. Some reaction for something in the extra work, that becomes absorbed in influences in painting. Some artists work in various way and they set styles or approaches to make it work. My style for stories and information in cultures is very fast, I think my painting reflects very wide ranges of interests.

Q. What was your impression of Seoul?
A. Actually I've not been able to visit much in Seoul. I was absorbed in this office. I wish I could explore Seoul more. Seoul has old and new things and there are many interesting textures in Seoul, and a lot of unique history with fancy architecture. In other things like food, so familiar to me. I hope to come back to Korea so often.

Q. How do your inspirations translate into your work?
A. All my work begins with a drawing. I'll always have a figment of an idea going into the work, but as I begin drawing, the idea mutates and transforms into something I have little conscious control over. As with handwriting, we all have our idiosyncratic calligraphic tendencies. It's the same with drawing. I don't like to force a drawing into existence. I'm constantly sculpting with the lines, building up and erasing until the image takes shape from the tangle of marks. Then all the stuff that I've consumed seems to bubble up into the surface, transformed by the digestive juices of my ravenous and chaotic mind.
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Piggyback, 2014, Ballpoint pen on paper, 29.8×21.6cm ⓒ 2019 James Jean

Q. This exhibition covers two decades of your artistic career. How does it make you feel to see these works in one place?
A. I feel like I should I have taken more vacation (laughs). So amazing to see all of them work together. It’s really hard to get the sense who you are, and what you’ve done. After this 20 years, to see together in museum, it’s really incredible, I must feel like a super hero.

Q. Have you changed much over those 20 years?
A. I think so. I designed so much change. Recently I saw some early works when I was maybe thirteen and fifteen, like some writings and sketches, I thought I used to smarter! People all have potential, and some are developed and nurtured over life, and others disappear. I used to enjoy drawing more than writing, but I was surprised that I wrote better than I'd expected when I was younger.

Q. The museum is filled with your covers from DC Comics' 'Fables' series, your collaborations with Prada and your Hollywood film posters. We'd like to know how your experience with creative minds from different fields influence your art.
A. Any experience affects my artwork, especially the commercial works because I could experiment with different techniques, and learned how to combine those different things. Commercial work is like a laboratory, that informs current works. I never intended to become known as an illustrator. These experiences really pushed my ability very far.

Q. Is there any particular piece that you'd like to introduce to our readers?
A. It's 'Gaia-Yellow Earth,' made of stained glass. It's my first 3D stained glass. It's amazing how my painting has been rendered into stained glass and how it can maintain its transparency, not to mention how pieces were put together at the top. I think this is all about piecing things together. The painting itself used a conventional technique, but when turning this into 3D, some innovative techniques had to be used. And that was a valuable experience for me.
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Gaia - Yellow Earth, 2019, Fused glass, lead, and steel, 236.2×132.1×132.1cm ⓒ 2019 James Jean

Q. How did you end up making this piece?
A. An interesting story. I was actually commissioned to create a window, stained glass window. Actually, it was small like a library, and then an old building in California. But the project didn't happen because of budget. And the stained glasses company called Justin studio, they said “Hey, we still want to work with you to make stained glass. We don't worry about the financial aspects. Let's make it happen.” So I worked with Justin to create three free stained glasses, pieces for my gallery show. Those pieces were the first introduction to stained glasses and they are all different techniques. Also because I wasn't familiar with stained glasses, I thought of some new ideas, maybe they didn’t try before, so new working was skilled and coming it with fresh ideas. Those stained glass pieces were so successful and they were sold.

Q. Do you embrace new challenges?
A. With some works, they look difficult in the beginning, but once they're done, they look so great and I feel very rewarded. And I am able to take on even more difficult projects afterward, and I develop a bigger vision on challenges.

Q. How would you like your audience to see this exhibition?
A. I expect them to enjoy me, eternal journey, and creativity. They can walk through slowly, kind of calm and meditated, and deep experience of the work. With paintings, they can walk through along the landscapes of my mind. Hope they can experience different emotion and enjoy other different textures and layers.

Q. What are your goals for the future?
A. I'd like to express my genuine thoughts through my artworks. And even after I am gone from this world, I hope my work will continue to connect me with people.
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View of James Jean's exhibition “Eternal Journey” © LOTTE Museum of Art

Dates April 4~Sept. 1, 2019
Place LOTTE Museum of Art

Video © LOTTE Museum of Art

May 2019 Editor:Kim Hyewon
Photographer:Park Sungyoung

Where to stay?

  • May 2019
  • Editor: Kim Hyewon
  • Photographer: Park Sungyoung
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