James Jean. Pagoda, 2013.
James Jean. Pagoda, 2013.
James Jean. ESL, 2012.
James Jean. Lotus War Day, 2011.
James Jean. Talib Kweli, 2012.
James Jean. Jaime, 2011.
James Jean. Bows, 2011.
James Jean. Lovers, 2011.
James Jean. REBUS Installation, 2011.

In Conversation: James Jean

Fresh out of New York’s School of Visual Arts, James Jean’s career as a comic book artist and commercial illustrator took off at full tilt, with a series of covers for the modern-day fairy tale Fables and projects for clients like Prada, 2x4, and Atlantic Records, earning him broad recognition and numerous industry awards. The Taiwanese–born, Los Angeles–based Jean has since made the tricky transition to fine artist, with a focus on drawing and painting. Last year, Maharam commissioned Jean to create an illustration intended for use in a campaign to promote Maharam Stories. Guided by a few artful phrases lifted from Stories, Jean produced an elaborately detailed drawing of a decaying fantasy world populated by mythical creatures—interspersed with imagery from Alix Browne’s Accidents Will Happen, Harmen Liemburg’s Fluorescent Husky, John Maeda’s The Swan, and Richard Wright’s Why Eames Matters—all in his lush, lyrical style. A visual compilation of Stories past, the completed work, Pagoda, significantly transcended Maharam’s expectations in its original advertorial intent and is now a Maharam Digital Project.

What is your favorite kind of project to work on?

James Jean: I enjoy projects that are predicated on some kind of narrative, preferably one that feels personal and is not tied strongly to a specific time or location. This way, it leaves space for me to weave various historical and geographical cues into a tapestry of images that feel familiar yet new and alien. These days, I’m focusing primarily on paintings, gallery shows, and personal publishing projects, so I can choose the format that suits the narrative, be it a large-scale painting, a digital work, or a book. 

What are your current sources of inspiration?

JJ: For a long time, I was drawn to Chinese silk scroll paintings, Japanese wood-block prints, Shanghai advertising posters, anatomical drawings, and etchings by Dürer, but these days I’m focused more on unlocking the imagery that lies deep in the recesses of my mind. Hence the stream of hallucinatory forms and phantoms in my sketchbooks and drawings.

There is a strong sense of fantasy and decay throughout your work. Where does that come from?

JJ: Ever since I was a child, I’ve made drawings. I’ve always had an ability to transcribe a version of what I was seeing in my mind on paper. But in a literal sense, there is always a decay in the signal from the mind to the hand when drawing—I can never draw exactly what it is I see in my head. The resistance along the nerves and the imperfect transmission of information make for interesting and unexpected mutations of my imagination. 

Where do your narratives come from?

JJ: They come from quiet, vulnerable moments, from silly coincidences and sensations of déjà vu. From days conquered, devoured, and excreted.

Is writing important to your process?

JJ: Not particularly at this point—making images expresses something and satisfies a compulsion that writing cannot. 

How have you been able to successfully transition from doing commercial work to fine art?

JJ: I’m not sure if I have been entirely successful in either venture, but I did make the slow transition by having enough courage or foolishness to turn away lucrative commercial projects while creating a personal body of work. I think the fine art always existed, and I always made work for myself, so when the commercial work was stripped away, the fine art was laid bare. 

Some of your painted works have a relatively realistic, figurative style, whereas your drawn pieces tend more toward the fantastical. From where does this distinction in mediums arise?

JJ: This distinction comes from my interest in external and internal observation—these are two very basic impulses that drive my urge to draw and paint. I like to draw what I see with my physical eyes as well as my mind’s eyes. But ultimately, it’s about having the freedom to create whatever imagery I want. I’m not limited by market forces or personal ideology. 

How do you divide your time between illustration, painting, sculpture, and product design?

JJ: Whenever I feel exhausted or bored with one thing, I bounce to another. I don’t have a real schedule unless I’m working on a book, but even then, I make sure to take breaks or to change my perspective in some way by alternating my activity. 

Why did you take Maharam’s commission?

JJ: I had known about Maharam for some time, and I was honored to be included among the list of illustrious past collaborators. Having lived in Los Angeles for so many years, it’s impossible to ignore the influence of Charles and Ray Eames. I’ve also worked with 2x4 in the past [and] with Prada, and I’m a huge fan of Paul Noble’s work. . . . Jacob Hashimoto shows with my gallerist in Los Angeles, and Marilyn Minter teaches at my alma mater, the School of Visual Arts. So there was a continuum there that felt very good to be a part of.

In developing the artwork for Pagoda, what was it like working from a list of poetic phrases?

JJ: Too much freedom is always difficult, so it was good to have some kind of constraint with which to work. The most challenging and interesting part of the process was to find the connective tissue between all the disparate images and phrases. I basically started the drawing on the left and slowly let it grow and evolve toward the right without much foresight or planning . . . but somehow, on its own and independent from conscious effort, it always achieves equilibrium in the end. 

Pagoda by James Jean is available through Maharam Digital Projects, an assemblage of large-scale wall installations created by esteemed artists, designers, illustrators, and photographers.