August in Los Angeles is arid and excessively hot. It’s one of those days where my breath feels cold as it leaves my body, as if I’ve walked into a cement kiln.I’m meeting with revered painter and artist James Jean, my liaison and accomplice for this story is architect Brandon Shigeta who, coincidentally, happens to be Jean’s ‘official unofficial’ photographer. A close friend and perennial collaborator, Brandon is responsible for documenting James and his extensive body of work for the better part of the last half-decade. Recently they worked alongside one another to plan and design the restoration project for the ‘Psychic Temple’ reference library in Long Beach – one of the city’s few remaining historical landmarks.
A 30 mile commute north of Long Beach takes us to a quaint neighborhood in LA known to the locals as Little Osaka. Home to a dense population of Japanese Americans, it’s in this surrounding locale where James sought refuge upon his return back to America after some years traveling abroad throughout Asia evading the public eye. Contradictory to his imposing presence in the fine art world, James exudes a stoic and humble demeanor, he invites us into his home and studio– where he lives with his wife Chihiro and young son Haru. Designed during the ‘70s by illustrious architect and Toronto native Frank Gehry, the space has undergone a considerable remodel since the Jean family took residence, with an intricate and labyrinthine wooden stairway serving as a main focal point; a nod to Marcel Duchamp’s contribution to the Cubism movement during the early 1900s.
Paralyzed with awe, my hypnotic state is interrupted by an invitation to join the rest of the group for Japanese tea and sweets at the dining room table. There we discuss parenthood, Dad bod as a legitimate affliction and the projects keeping James busy at the present moment. “I’ve been preparing for a solo show this spring in Tokyo at Takashi Murakami’s Kaikai Kiki gallery along with private commissions and some commercial projects.” He escorts Brandon and I to his studio and reference library where preliminary sketches, rough notes and a collection of 4 large canvases prepped in yellow paint serve as teasers for his impending body of work. As I flip through the pages of his sketchbooks I get a sense for the dualities in which James effortlessly navigates in his story telling. Chaos, darkness and fantasy are all enduring components, yet a glimmer of optimism and euphoria underline a possible new direction he is beginning to embrace and explore at this phase of his life.
I was initially exposed to your art years ago through your mural work at festivals like POW! WOW! It seems as if you’re doing less of this type of work now.
I started doing murals because it was something completely new and different. It was fun as I was able to push myself and see what I was capable of doing on such a large scale, but I wasn’t able to get my murals to a stage where I felt they were complete. There’s always a time limit to them, you usually have less than a week to work on a wall, and I wasn’t ever able to get clean lines from a spray can. I mean now there are techniques and different tools to aid in that; some people
let out the gas on their cans or freeze their spray cans prior to use in order to make the gas less compressed and slow down the flow; this allows for more precision.
There are certain brands now producing cans that are designed specifically for artists that already have low flow. But before these, you had to figure out ways to achieve those results; some people would. They needed to teach all this when I was in school, street art has become so legitimate now it should be a major.
What did you study while you were enrolled at the School of Visual Arts?
It’s funny, I originally wanted to study cartooning, and the only school that offered that major in New York was S.V.A. Soon after I started, I realized I was quite bad at drawing comics, I didn’t have the attention span to make sequential images. I just wanted to make pin ups and single splash pages basically. So in my second year I transferred to the illustration department which was really competitive, but that’s where I actually learned how to paint and draw. It turned out a lot of the students in the cartooning department couldn’t really develop their skills there either.
It’s interesting, I went from wanting to work on comics, transitioned to illustration and then onto painting; graduated, and then went back to doing comic book covers (laughs) it’s strange how things work out cyclically like that. For a long time I was trying to get away from doing that but at this point in my life I’m just happy to do the work and add it to my collection of things I can share with an audience.
Revealing the process of your drawings has always been a key component in how you share your work, how have tools like the iPad and social media altered this?
Incorporating tools like the iPad has definitely made that aspect more enjoyable for sure. Working with it, I’m able to document the time lapse of the entire process of a drawing – so it’s interesting to see that. I’ll usually sketch an idea on paper and import it to the iPad where I’ll edit freely and with efficiency. I’ll incorporate Photoshop into the process also, as it allows me to get my work to a point where it’s much more refined, but using these techniques requires more time than working on traditionally on paper or canvas. As for social media, it’s become the easiest way for me to stay connected with my audience, share new ideas and creep on my friends.
How important is it today to be able to juggle between analog and digital mediums?
I definitely feel as an artist you need to have those skills, but I think it comes naturally to almost everyone these days. When I was going through school, we weren’t taught these techniques at all, but as result of being young and being technology literate, people are able pick it up fairly easily. I feel that by not learning how to work freely in digital mediums, an artist is actually putting him or herself at a severe disadvantage. But ya, I love taking photos and editing them on the phone and vice versa, sometimes I’ll use photography tools and apply them to my illustrations. The quick back and forth is efficient and it’s amazing how everything is so easy to grasp nowadays. I remember there was one guy in my illustration class that used a computer to enhance his work and he was shit on by everyone because it was all about traditional painting and drawing skills at the time; now it’s the opposite. But I didn’t start experimenting with digital tools until after I graduated in 2000-2001 so I was on the cusp of when these tools started to become more accessible and user friendly.
Has your audience been receptive to your digital work as a viable medium?
Not in the beginning, it’s only recently now that people don’t care at all. People used to be hung up on it, but now I’ll do a piece that is made completely through digital means and it’ll do well based on the strength of the image alone. I had a blog a few years back where I would show my process and sometimes it would require the use of a projector, the feedback was very negative, but I don’t care, I see it as another tool and a part of my method now. I think people now are so used to it or maybe oblivious, that it comes down to simply the strength of your ideas and how you express them.
There was a short time when you were experimenting with 3 dimensional objects and accessories. Is this something you’ll revisit?
Let’s just say that I’ve been consumed by drawing and by creating pictures at the moment, but I’ve never been great at sculpting or making 3D objects to be honest. I kind of dabbled in it when I was making jewelry and tried to produce some objects informed by my work, but on a substantial scale I haven’t committed to it. I worked on a piece, which was one my characters riding a dissected inanimate horse all encapsulated in glass. It’s a little menacing but also innocent and was based on a drawing that I had done, but when we brought it to Japan and tried to manufacture it the process became too expensive. It wouldn’t have worked at retail so I moved on from it, but it was a fun experience experimenting none the less.
You’ve recently aligned with Prada again after 10 years, and they’ve commissioned your work for their next two seasons. How did the partnership come about?
Originally, they commissioned me to make a capsule of digital murals and wallpapers which they planned to decorate their SoHo Epicenter store with 10 years ago. That quickly evolved into me doing an additional mural for their runway show in Milan. At the time, I was submitting drawings for the first runway, they asked me if the artwork could be used on the clothing as well. From there the project just kept growing, my work eventually became a part of the product packaging, in-store installations and we produced an animated short together as well. For this new FW18 collection it looks as if that’s what’s happening again, I’ve only been working with Prada on a ‘project by project’ basis but it’s been a very organic process.
Working with such a big brand, do you have to deal with a lot of heads and departments within the company?
No actually, that’s one of the reasons why it’s been great working with Prada. I basically just deal with the design team and the final approval comes from Miuccia Prada herself. It’s a small team, but they work with a lot of great collaborators. For instance, 2×4 works on a lot of their campaigns and OMA – Rem Koolhaas’ office, they help Prada on almost everything so when I’m involved with this kind of work it’s great to have those partners help elevate what I’m doing. I feel very lucky and grateful that I was asked to work with such an esteemed brand.
You’ve been linked to a couple of big films releasing this year as well, correct?
I recently wrapped up some pieces for a movie by Guillermo del Toro called “The Shape of Water”. We first worked together on a logo I made for his production company years ago and we keep in touch here and there through social media. He reached out to me earlier this year and said “I’m working on this new movie, it’s perfect for you, you have to do this!” it was a no brainer, I’ve been dying to collaborate on something substantial with him since I first became aware of his work. I worked on the prose version of this project as well so there’s also an original story that will be printed into a novel following the release of the film as well.
“All of these organic forms in my drawings, I think, derives from our deep and sensual nature as human beings.”
I saw some images that you shared online for a movie Darren Aronosfsky is directing.
Yes, so those two projects kind of happened at the same time but both directors were not aware (laughs). It’s interesting to have worked with both directors who I admire so much, Darren is super hands on, he’s quite critical and there was a lot of back and forth and a lot of changes. Whereas with Guillermo, his involvement was almost completely hands off. I’m grateful to have been able to work with them and gained valuable experience through both projects. When you have friction in the conceptual process it actually allows you to create some cool and unexpected results, which I might not have necessarily come up with on my own. But on the opposite end there is something nice about the purity of a piece that doesn’t have that kind of intervention.
What’s the narrative that you’re suggesting with your new body of work?
I’m not sure yet to be honest, I think they’ll formulate a story once I’m all done, but I know that I want to express a child-like optimism in these. I’m in the middle of creating this new world with this series and there’s still an element of darkness within some of the images and there are definitely some allegorical themes happening, but I’m still figuring it out myself. I’m working on one that’s based on an oil painting Michelangelo did called ‘The Torment of Saint Anthony’. It’s the earliest known painting done by him as a 12 or 13 years old kid.
It was inspired by an etching Martin Schongauer did a decade or two before that; I’ve always been drawn to that image and so I’m excited to create my version of it finally for this series.
Your darker work was very well received but it looks as if you’re moving away from that since you’ve started a family.
Definitely, raising a child has influenced the work that I do, the whole children’s book aesthetic and its subject matter is a lot happier now than some of my previous works. Having a kid has also helped me to become more focused, and more aware of the limited amount of time that I have. My son is so bright and happy and I absorb that innocence and optimism. It’s so pure and it’s something you want to preserve for as long as you can before the world kind of degrades and shows you darkness. I’m also trying to depict that fragility in this new series, but also still keep it kawaii (laughs).
What do you think your son makes of what you do for a living?
I’m not sure what he thinks about it, he sees and touches everything, he’s scribbled on some of my paintings and he definitely enjoys painting already. I’m interested to see what happens when he starts to go to school and meets other kids and sees what their parents do. But in LA a lot of people lead creative lives so it’ll be interesting.
Are you over-critical of his artwork?
(Laughs) That’s the trick, right? How much do you try and mold your child into what you think is best and how much do you push them and discipline them? These are all new challenges I’m faced with.
What was your upbringing like?
It was pretty strict. Both of my parents worked and art was not encouraged as a career in my family. My dad had a very high economic libido so he was always hustling. I used to deliver newspapers with him during the mornings before he’d go to the office. I remember he would always try and find different ways to make money and I feel I inherited that work ethic. There was a lot of pressure to succeed academically but I realized that doesn’t necessarily mean success in real life. It could mean that you’re going to be a nerd and a social outcast (laughs).
Is it fair to say that you identify with outcasts or misfits to some degree?
Yes, you know those early experiences never leave you, even if you try and re-invent yourself. Personally, I feel it’s a lot easier to be more elusive and play the role of the outcast because it’s hard for me to be a spokesperson for my own work. I look at artists like Andy Warhol and Salvador Dali who is a great example, these people who have a very recognizable persona and create these grand caricatures of themselves; for some reason I could never do that. I always felt more comfortable disappearing into the background, which is probably a result of growing up as a minority in suburban New Jersey (laughs). I thought it was always easier to be unnoticed and exist on the fringes. I feel like if I grew up in Asia I would have been more extroverted and outgoing, I mean there’s a part of me like that which exists, but after so many years of suppressing those attributes, hiding behind my work has become my default setting.
Isolation and nature inform a lot of the elements in your work, where does your interest with the natural world stem from?
All of these organic forms in my drawings, I think derives from our deep and sensual nature as human beings. It’s sort of like when you take mushrooms or psychedelics and all of sudden you’re exposed to all these intertwining shapes and forms. I’m able to visualize objects melting, becoming fluid and forms starting to consume one another. I’m also attracted to alternative colour palettes and combinations of them vibrating against each other; I feel that’s really evident in my current work.
You also draw influences from eastern mythology and motifs, were you exposed to a lot of this kind of imagery growing up?
A lot of people say my work resembles Indonesian art – it’s very ornate and has a lot of similar motifs to what I do, especially in their depiction of their gods and mythology. But I didn’t get into it these references until shortly after I graduated college. There’s this Italian missionary – Giuseppe Castiglione who was living in China during the 1700s where he became a court painter. I really like his work, he was one the first to introduce western rendering and modeling techniques into Chinese silk scroll paintings; so it was this hybrid of both of these worlds that I was very drawn to. Traditional Chinese silk scroll paintings were typically flat, and he added chiaroscuro and 3 dimensional elements. He was quite influential to me as this kind of hybrid aesthetic was a representation of what I wanted to achieve in my own work. I was really attracted to graphics and bold flat work, but also had an affinity for rendering things and being concerned with texture, light and shadows. I’m also was very influenced by Japanese woodblock printing and artists Hokusai and Yoshitoshi. I appreciate the basics of what that kind of graphic language portrayed. I’m not sure if my work is that refined, but I’m definitely working towards that.
How do you think your work will be interpreted decades or a century from now?
I’m not sure if humanity is going to make it (laughs), I read that sperm counts in the western world have declined significantly since the 1970s; and besides, everything is ephemeral moving towards the future. I don’t think people don’t care too much about history anymore, in art you see people do certain things and use techniques but they don’t have an appreciation or care for where they’ve appropriated the ideas from; it’s depressing really. Myself though, I pillage only from dead artists.