Beauty, detachment, academia

James Jean in his studio

In 2005, I procured a signed copy of James Jean’s sketchbook, Process Recess.  Since this is was my pre-comic-geekdom era, I hadn’t heard of him, but just the cover intrigued me; the drawing was whimsical, the line quality delicate, and the size small and intimate.  When I cracked the book open, each piece, whether it was rendered in pastel, pencil illustration, or digital painting, featured delicate line-work and surreal, dreamlike subject matter.

I must have devoured each page fifty times; his work is aesthetic crack.

The Willow Tree 2

Ever since then, I’ve purchased several of his prints, checked his website at least once a week, drooled over a giant exhibit of his illustrations at Jonathan Levine Gallery in 2009, purchased a collection of his Fables covers, and even went so far as to reach out for him for career advice.  What can I say; I’m a fan.

So imagine the giddy look on my face when I ran across an interview with him on Hypebeast.  He touches on the difficulty of transitioning from the comic art scene to the fine arts:

The transition has been slow, but I am impatient. I’ve wanted to be a painter since I was 20, but to survive, I found work as an illustrator. My identity was obscured in the commercial success I found in my 20s. Now I’m trying to establish myself as the artist I intended to be. I’m not sure if there’s a stigma… I used to think there was but I’m beginning to find that people don’t really care as long as the work is good.

Even though he attracted a massive audience by doing the covers of Fables, he’s still driven to create work that isn’t as easily accessible.  How difficult it must have been to continue to push the boundaries of his art work knowing that he was subsequently going to push himself out of the lucrative illustration deals he had worked so hard to garner.

Then, he spoke about the purpose behind his artwork:

I don’t consciously exorcise my demons… it feels anachronistic to be an expressive artist these days; I’m not supposed to reveal anything personal – the work must be cool and detached, with a simple motif that can be applied on anything anywhere.


James Jean!  I thought we were soul-mates!  I understand the stigma against artists who want to be “expressive” — narcissistic, self-centered, generic — but does “applied on anything anywhere” necessarily negate “anything personal”?  I find that the most vibrantly beautiful and intriguing pieces are incredibly personal.  “Personal” may not mean universal, but, to me, vulnerability and transparency are the keys to making artwork that sticks to the ribs, that lodges in people’s brains, that changes our ways of seeing the world.

Dented pride aside, this is his reaction to his own artwork; nowhere does he make a universal claim that “only this type of art is good.”  Perhaps beauty is his only concern; perhaps he doesn’t have the same social slant to his artwork that has driven me.  Perhaps, I also need to recognize that this interview feeds into his public image, and perhaps the target audience wants this type of response from an artist.

And perhaps it comes down to those age-old debates.  Is art about beauty or is it about concept?  Is it about the object’s self-referential universe or about the audience’s reaction to that universe?  These questions are, in all practicality, un-answerable.  And unimportant.  James Jean’s work is stunning and has captured my heart for years.  I utterly respect his devotion to his career, his recognizable aesthetic, and his constant movement.  And ultimately, I’m still his fan-girl.

During an internal debate just as convoluted as the one above, (paths of self-proclaimed artists vs. institutionally-validated artists), I gave up on graduate school in the spring, figuring I could make a living without it.  I could continue to work my day jobs and sell art on the side.  Perhaps even become commercially successful enough to only do art full-time.

I quickly ran face first into a related set of issues: in order to be commercially successful, would I have to compromise my artistic ethics?  Would I have to release my passion for intimacy and social impact in favor of “cool and detached”?

Yes, there are plenty of artists who make a living without a graduate degree.  But the artists I want to emulate, the artists who challenge this world to be a better place … they all have MFA’s.

Biting the bullet and getting the degree will give me a stamp of approval to pursue those elite opportunities.  Career success does not have to mean showing in a certain gallery or seeing work in a certain publication.  But to me, success is not only about making a living doing what I enjoy; it’s about knowing my art has impacted the world.  In order to do that, I need representation that knows how to play the game and will get my work seen all on an international scale.

At least I am slightly self-aware and recognize that I think I’m too big for my britches?

Between graduate school, grants, exhibitions, and galleries, I am handcuffed to a relentless cycle of application deadlines.  My iCal is a beautiful rainbow puzzle.

Since you know I’ll be there, the studio is always open for hugs and caffeinated beverages.

Because he is a team-player, Brian did a lovely job updating my website with new sections, an updated artist’s statement, and an easily-navigable store.

Round of applause, Brian!

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One Response to Beauty, detachment, academia

  1. Roy Howard says:

    Great blogpost Cat…
    Much to mull. Much that I appreciate. Screw the “too big for my britches” issue, a non-issue.
    Go for what you see and feel is right for you. Your awareness and good instincts have served you well and will continue to.
    Your discussion of James Jean’s work was very insightful and informative. Some inspiration for you, to be sure. You’ve always been moved by images AND words so why shouldn’t they go together in an art form/environment?
    As for Grad school. Ain’t it a muddle. Let it be. Let it come to you and sort itself out as it does. If it’s to work it will work when it works for you…
    You are always an inspiration…YTB,

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