At an upscale Asian-fusion restaurant, Los Angeles de riguer by the looks of it, sits a man dressed in a casual warmup jacket. He’s flanked by two attractive young women. The room’s dim ambient lighting tints everything blue, save for the blood-red tablecloth.
The man slices his food, lifts the fork to his mouth, and takes a bite. The only thing that separates this James Jean illustration from reality is that the diner is chomping on a meaty slice of pie in the shape of a happy face.
Oh, and his head isn’t really a head, but a big, pink brain with teeth.
As with many other classically trained artists, Jean’s work runs the risk of being degraded by the commercial clients he relies on to make a living. This startling drawing wound up in a Men’s Health article entitled, “Mood Food: Feed Your Brain to Handle Any Situation.”
A skim through Jean’s impressive portfolio on his websites, jamesjean.com and processrecess.com, reveals that clients like Atlantic Records, Burton Snowboards, and Target are relying on Jean’s artistic sensibility—a blend of comic book wonder and eerie realism—to peddle their products. Jean’s work is too varied to pigeonhole into one genre, technique, or even medium. Born in 1979, Jean demonstrates equal skill in oil painting and illustration. One oil painting, Ronnie and Reggie Kray, based on a famous photograph of two notorious members of London’s criminal underworld from their amateur boxing days, manages to channel both George Grosz and Lucien Freud and still be something unique and completely Jean.
Recently, however, something in Jean changed. “I’m dying to get back to my personal work. I’m getting a little tired of doing so much commercial stuff.” It could be that he’s finally proven to himself that he can make a living making art: recently, one of the covers he designed for the DC/Vertigo comic book series Fables fetched $15,000 on eBay. Pretty impressive for a boy who was once a weekly visitor at Funnybooks Comics & Stuff in Parsipanny, New Jersey.
This year, Jean says he’s cutting down on the artistically draining commissions, even if it means a loss to his income. He says he wants to focus on his own work more, particularly his sketches. What started as a routine assignment given to all first-year students at the School of Visual Arts in New York turned into a lifelong passion: keep a sketchbook, complete a page a day, and make each page something experimental, something new. “Afterwards, I just kept it up,” particularly when he travels abroad to places like Taiwan, Paris, London, and Austria, Jean says.
Jean’s Vienna sketchbook is among the most prolific posted on his website. In October of 2001, several months after graduating art school, Jean traveled to Austria to reunite with a girl he met that summer on the China Synergy program. As Jean describes it, “the Chinese government basically created this program where they would invite ethnic Chinese college students from all over the world to go back to China.” (Jean’s family emigrated from Taiwan when he was three.) On this three-week, all-expenses-paid trip, Jean met Georgina, a half-Chinese, half-Austrian student who dazzled him with her mastery of four languages and artistic background; her mother emigrated from Taiwan to play violin in the Graz orchestra. “We got along great, we hooked up in China. So romantic, right?” Jean laughs. “Beijing, the city where it all went down.”
Although the two kept up a correspondence after the program, time and distance may have soured the relationship during Jean’s visit. Plus, “I got a different haircut,” he jokes. If spurned love wasn’t bad enough, a particularly frigid Austrian autumn also made it difficult for Jean to sketch.
I’m dying to get back to my personal work. I’m getting a little tired of doing so much commercial stuff.
“I spent a lot of my days venturing out, just walking around outside” while Georgina was in class, Jean said. “It was freezing…the weather, the feeling I got from her.” That iciness is conveyed in the black- and-blue ink sketches. With very little other color, they stand out in contrast to the Los Angeles sketchbook, with its dappled green palm frond and blazing red fire truck.
Of the Austrian sketches, Jean reflects, “Even though I was disappointed romantically, I could sort of channel that into the drawings, focus that disappointment and energy into them.”
While Jean didn’t leave Austria with a girlfriend, he did leave with a stack of sketches, which he later bound into a book and sent to his host family as a gift. He also made a copy for himself and “showed it around and got some jobs.”
Fast-forward two years, a cross-country move, and a wife later: Jean had stopped sketching, just about the same time he hit his stride as an in-demand freelance illustrator. That’s not a coincidence, he says. “I was just working a lot and I wasn’t really traveling anywhere, and I didn’t have time to keep a sketchbook. It was sort of a dark period.”
While the act of sketching itself is solitary for Jean, getting feedback on his work from respected peers is communal. He describes regular meetings with friends back in Brooklyn, swapping sketchbooks at a diner. “It was like a support group or a book club,” he says. “We were all starving artists, but it was also very competitive at the time.” Six years later, Jean is still part of a loose art collective called Meathaus, which grew out of the group of friends at SVA. The twenty or so artists self-publish anthologies of comics, although they’re now scattered across the globe.
Through his websites, Jean’s also accustomed to sharing personal moments and recollections with the public, leaving the sketches open to interpretation. For instance, a drawing in blue ink that appears in the Los Angeles sketchbook depicts a person of indeterminate sex lying in a hospital bed with a facecloth concealing his or her eyes. Without any text or further explication, it could be an image of someone recovering from rhinoplasty. However, it’s actually a drawing of his wife, Wen, post-knee surgery.
Wen appears often in Jean’s work, as in a 2003 oil painting called Study of K. (“She went by Kristi when I first met her,” Jean explains. “I guess a lot of Chinese students, when they go to school here, choose an American name to blend in, but it’s kind of changing as people become more comfortable.”) It’s an uncannily lifelike portrait of Wen standing in an ordinary home bathroom, which is messily draped with towels. She’s wearing a diaphanous white nightgown and blue polka-dotted shower cap, looking ethereal in a drab setting. In spite of Jean expertly capturing every last detail, down to the dingy fluorescent lighting, don’t call it “photo-realism”: It’s a loaded term the artist rejects as a descriptor of his style, and even that word, “style,” makes him uncomfortable.
Wen’s influence also extends to imagery. Flowers often pop up in unexpected places in Jean’s art, especially lotuses and orchids. “My wife loves orchids and they appear in our house everywhere,” Jean says. “The shape of them are sort of sensual and reminiscent of female anatomy and all that.” As for the lotus, “it’s just reminiscent of my heritage. We have lotus pods in my house and we eat lotus root, and, of course, there’s a long tradition of the lotus in Chinese painting. With all the religious connotations, it’s just a really beautiful and meaningful thing to have in a piece of artwork for me,” he says. “It’s not purely for [decoration], it’s part of my life.”
On some of his sketches, Jean jots down a few notes or a paragraph or two, “to document what I’ve done and my feelings about a certain place or event.” On other sketches, there will be at least one element that is perfectly formed, complete in its detail. It could be a dismembered head, or some random feature that Jean trained his pen on at the expense of others. The rest of the scene is often sketched out in a loose, ghostly silhouette.
“Basically, it’s just a time constraint that causes that to happen. People move, the situation changes,” he explains. “I’m just responding to what’s in front of me, relying on my first impression to guide me along. It’s almost like a Ouija board, where I let these unseen forces guide my pen along.”
Unseen forces seem about the only thing capable of slowing the forward march of Jean’s career. During a recent eye exam, an optometrist revealed that there was a chance Jean has glaucoma. A second eye doctor said that the only way to know for certain was for Jean to go back in six months for another exam. For an illustrator, the idea of losing his eyesight is terrifying.
“There is no cure, it’s irreversible,” Jean says. “I guess I can’t really think about it because it will paralyze me in a way, and I [have to] try and go about things normally.”
It remains to be seen if and how this development will manifest itself in his art. For now, Jean says he’s looking forward to an upcoming 10-day trip to Argentina, where he plans to visit the Iguazu Falls.
Iguazu has about 270 waterfalls. That should make for a lot of pages.