Excavating diverse art histories, James Jean transforms visual codes of past and present, East and West, into a disorientating, timeless dreamworld.
For such a young artist, Jean’s prolific oeuvre is impressive. With a colossal digital following, representation by contemporary icon Takashi Murakami, and high profile collaborations from Prada to Apple, Jean is an artist in high demand. Having begun his career as a cover artist for DC comics, his distinctive style fuses a traditional sensibility to painting with an animated aesthetic reminiscent of both Manga and American comic-books. Carrying the nostalgic residue of his former trade, Jean’s paintings depict imaginative hallucinations and deja-vus. In works such as Dance and Sunshower, the intense palette and personified flora appear stolen from a children’s funfair, Fantasia or a pleasant psychedelic trip. Recurrent mythical beasts littered throughout Jean’s oeuvre offer idiosyncratic twists on famous cultural narratives, whereas the subdued hues of paintings such as Year of the Monkey and Harp hold a shy nightmarish beauty. Evocative of a youthful escapism – both joyous and intimidating – Jean’s paintings nurture the limitless potential of fantasy.
Eternal Journey, Jean’s solo show in 2019 at the Lotte Art Museum in Seoul, was a prolific retrospective of old and new works that presented Jean as a contemporary master. His vast and prodigious range of works included preliminary sketches presented as artefacts as well as immersive digital installations, stain-glass sculptures and vast mural-esq paintings. Basing his work on historical artefacts, Jean distills lofty art histories into captivating works with a committed pop sensibility. Inferno – Red Fire South is a subversive remake of Hell Scroll, or Jigoku-zoshi, a 12th century Japanese scroll painting. Spread across three canvases, the large painting depicts a clan of cartoon child-like creatures entrapped in blue flames. With large baby heads, wispy blue hair and oversized trainers, the creatures’ innocence is violated by the sprawling flames and thin, tentacle-like branches that are wrapped around them, as if suffocated by their own umbilical cords.
Openly exposing his process both online and through exhibitions, Jean reinvents outdated notions of the all-knowing artistic genius. With an honest and transparent approach, Jean makes work that is accessible without compromising its quality or complexity. Drawing from a wealth of influences, he merges his ancient predecours with a contemporary visual paradigm: Jean’s technical ability and breadth of his practice evokes that of the renaissance, his reinterpretations of Hokusai’s archetypal waves align him with the masters of Japanese art, while depictions of Bugs Bunny and Pinocchio nod to America’s megabuck cultural-guardians, Disney and Looney Tunes. Coalescing the archaic, the rare, the contemporary and the mass-produced from across Asia, North America and Europe, Jean’s aesthetic thwarts notions of time and place, collapsing into a bright, enthralling fantasticism.