Thursday, August 27, 2009

The James Jean Experience Part 1

Eisner award-winning artist James Jean (cover artist of 'Fables', 'The Umbrella Acadamy' and many more) was briefly in the country this month as a guest speaker at the Semi-Permanent design conference held in Auckland. He is arguably one of the most popular and influential artist/illustrators on the planet right now, having worked for major clients including: Prada, Time Magazine, Entertainment Weekly, Rolling Stone, Atlantic Records and many more.

While he was here he also exhibited prints from his first solo exhibition 'Kindling', at an exclusive engagement at Plaything Gallery. The opening was shared with Misery's 'Heart of Misery' exhibition, which I'll report on as a separate review.
Although Misery's work covered two thirds of the gallery, the visitors had clearly come in mass to see James' ethereal visions up close, and they weren't disappointed. In fact, a better description of the opening would be an art-lover's Big Day Out! It was crammed to capacity with a crowd covering every aspect of the art scene from advertising folk to artists, designers, students, comic fans, punks and art scene rubberneckers (on that note I apologise for some of the not-so-focused photos, there was barely room to raise an arm at times, but it should give you an idea of the turnout).
While the art on show were limited edition signed prints and not the originals themselves, his fluid renderings of mischievous children at play in a dreamscape of surreal imagery were no less arresting. His lyrical line work pays tribute to the fine lines of traditional Japanese prints with a touch of Salvador Dali's sense of the surreal for good measure. It's easy to see why he would have felt at home producing covers for DC/Vertigo's 'Fables'; many of his paintings are playful meditations of childhood innocence infused with a undercurrent of cautionary folk-lore.

'Kindling' has recently been published as a 12 print portfolio from Chronicle books, and copies were available on the night for $90nz (it's available now for $29.95us, ISBN:978-0811870399). Despite the steep cover price, they sold like hot-cakes to eager fans looking to get a copy signed by the man himself. Once Jean arrived for the signing, the room gravitated in his direction, completely submerging him for the rest of the evening until every book was signed, and fan greeted.
Once you squeezed your way into his presence, he was extremely warm and personable to his fans, taking the time to sign everything that was handed to him, posing for photographs and drawing quick sketches in every copy of the 'Kindling' collection.
Taking a look at the exhibition now, the eight signed prints displayed were on sale for a recession friendly $1100 (no doubt coming to an ad agency reception wall near you).

Above: 'Maze', Mixed Media on Paper, 29 x 41", 2008. Copyright James Jean 2009.

The first print 'Maze' acts as a good introduction to this series: an innocent portrayal of children at play, with a hint of mystery provided by the 'maze' hulahoop.

Above: 'Willow (Horse)', Acrylic & Oil Canvas, 60 x 72", 2008. Copyright James Jean 2009.

The next piece 'Willow (Horse)' appears to explore one of his many reoccurring themes: the exploration of form, using one form of organic life to represent another (the last print 'Hive' deals with a variation of this theme). The subdued colour palette and flowing organic shapes and lines strongly recalls the influence of traditional Chinese scroll paintings. The coloured thread flowing through the painting also reoccurs throughout the 'Kindling' series. In the print collection it acts as an umbilical cord connecting the prints from cover to back page.

Above: 'Exit Eden', Digital, 30 x 36" @ 300dpi, 2009. Copyright James Jean 2009.

'Exit Eden' was created as a three-piece design for a series of skateboard decks for Giant Robot (cut the paintings into thirds to get an idea of the deck designs). You can check out Jame's creation of the design over on his blog, where he describes his inspiration behind the image:

'Skating has always seemed to me a courageous activity, and what is courage but an absence of shame. Adam and Eve were expelled from Eden, pitiful in their nakedness, shameful in their new knowledge. However, the rise of science made man and nature transparent, naked again under a microscope and scalpel. We adorn ourselves with knowledge, hiding our private selves under a crimson web, until a bad fall shreds it to the bone.'
Like the last print in this series 'Hive', it plays with the internal and external forms and designs of human anatomy. On a brief comics side note, I really dig the male figure's solid Kirby-like feet!

Above: 'Willow 4' and 'Willow 5', Mixed Media and Digital, 22 x 30", 2007. Copyright James Jean 2009.

The next two prints (the largest of the show), 'Willow 4' and 'Willow 5' really bring out Jean's fairy-tale sensibility, with this sinister Brothers Grimm style narrative. I suspected this might be part of some larger narrative sequence, and you can check out the rest of the series at Jean's website. 'Willow 4' shows child-like creatures at play with (or are they they victimising?) a Willow Tree spirit/nymph. Things have obviously taken a nasty turn in 'Willow 5', and it's up to an old woodsman to put the Willow Tree to rest permanently (in very small pieces..ouch).

Above: 'Excavation', Oil and Acrylic on Two Canvases, 60 x 40", 2009. Copyright James Jean 2009.

The next piece 'Excavation', is one of my favourites (and unfortunately isn't in the 'Kindling' portfolio). It combines some of the themes explored in the previous pieces in a more relaxed way, with a more sophisticated result. The painting in general feels looser; the organic line-work is off-set nicely by a less finished, more textured background.
The hound figures reflect the internal/external theme again, but the soft focus, translucent approach to the forms seems far more successful in provoking a visual response. It's an atmospheric piece, that really lingers with you in a way the others don't.

Above: 'Wave 2', Acrylic on Paper, 25.5 x 30", 2009. Copyright James Jean 2009.

'Wave 2' is a wonderful example of art nouveau illustration, but is an odd inclusion for this show. Apart from featuring a young boy, it doesn't really tie-in with this series at all.

Above: 'Hive', Mixed Media on Paper, 29 x 41", 2008. Copyright James Jean 2009.

The last print 'Hive', again returns to the theme of internal vs external, and the mixture of organic forms. The floral internal organs are beautifully detailed and finished within this cherub-like 'David' (...with hammer in hand. Hey, the bees need their honey!). I guess you could say there's some conversation in this piece about life and death, with the bees etc, but that seems a little obvious, so I'll let you decide.

I definitely feel this series is Jean making his transition from illustrator to fine artist, and doing so successfully in a way few popular artists manage.

For more of James Jean's astonishing artwork check out his website and his informative blog: Process Recess. He's also started producing some abstract pieces that I think are really moving his work in a new direction, so be sure to check those out! Be sure to also check out Plaything Gallery on their Tumblr page and catch a video of the show.

Coming soon in Part 2: An exclusive interview with James Jean on 'Kindling'!


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