James Jean

In his timeless dreamworld, James Jean unites disparate visual codes of past and present, East and West.

The Taiwanese-American artist has enjoyed widespread attention in fine art and popular culture alike, with high-profile collaborations from Prada to Apple, a colossal digital following and representation by contemporary art icon — Takashi Murakami. 

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Highlights
  • Seven Phases, HYBE Insight Museum, Seoul, 2021
  • Eternal Journey, solo show at the Lotte Art Museum, Seoul, 2019
  • Collaboration with Apple for iPad Pro Campaign, 2018
  • Azimuth, solo show at KaiKai KiKi Gallery, Tokyo, 2017-2018
  • Poster commissioned by Guillermo del Toro for Oscar-nominated The Shape of Water, 2017
  • Zugzwang, solo show at Hidari Zingaro Gallery, Tokyo, 2015
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The time Jean spent as a cover artist for DC Comics is a clear influence for his distinctive style: a fusion of traditional painting techniques and animated aesthetics reminiscent of Manga, Anime and American comic-books. The works depict imaginative hallucinations and deja-vus where recurring characters offer twists on long-standing cultural narratives. A mutable palette moves between the intense digital hues of works like Peacock (2018) to the more subdued, renaissance-esque tones of works like Lory (2019) and Stampede (2019). Sometimes joyous, sometimes sinister, Jean’s paintings retain the youthful escapism of comics while exploring a rich library of historic and contemporary iconography.

James Jean, Stampede, 2019. Courtesy of the artist.
James Jean, Lory, 2019. Courtesy of the artist.
James Jean, Peacock, 2018. Courtesy of the artist.
“I think the best paintings of mine are born from the deepest recesses of the mind, from dark and surprising places”

Eternal Journey, Jean’s solo show in 2019 at the Lotte Art Museum in Seoul, was an expansive retrospective of old and new works. The exhibition included preliminary sketches alongside immersive digital installations, stained-glass sculptures and vast mural-like paintings. Basing some of his work on genuine historical artefacts, Jean distills lofty art histories into captivating images with a pop sensibility. Inferno (2019) is a subversive remake of Jigoku Zoshi, or Hell Scroll, a famous 12th century Japanese scroll painting. Spread across three canvases, the large painting depicts a cluster of child-like cartoon creatures engulfed in blue flames. With large babyish heads, wispy blue hair and oversized trainers, the creatures’ innocence is violated by the sprawling flames and the thin, tentacle-like branches wrapped around them — as if suffocated by their own umbilical cords.

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James Jean, Inferno, 2019. Courtesy of the artist.

Jean offers a modern take on the work of Old Masters of both East and West. The complexity and technical prowess of his compositions evokes that of the renaissance painters, while reinterpretations of the Great Wave in works like Inferno II (2016) pay homage to the forefather of Japanese art, Hokusai. This deference to history is juxtaposed with anime aesthetic-queues and recognisable motifs like Bugs Bunny and Pinocchio which nod to America’s megabuck cultural-guardians — Disney and Looney Tunes. The magic of Jean’s work lies precisely within this coalescence: the archaic and the rare set alongside the mass-produced and the popular. Thwarting notions of time and place, Jean’s work collapses eclectic references into bright, enthralling fantasticism.

James Jean, Adrift II, 2016. Courtesy of the artist.
“I like to draw what I see with my physical eyes as well as my mind’s eyes.”
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James Jean, Adrift III, 2020. Courtesy of the artist.
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