Award-winning artist James Jean was in the midst of installing his first solo show at Chelsea’s Jonathan Levine Gallery when he put down the paintbrush and to chat with us about the differences between the New York and LA art scenes, his first solo show, and his recent decision to move on from comics. Jean, who’s widely known for his cover art for several DC/Vertigo Comics series, opted to showcase his personal work (which references everything from Japanese Woodblock prints to anatomical charts) in Kindling, which opens tomorrow night. After we talked, in true artist form, the camera-shy talent grabbed his brush and got right back to work. (For proof, see the pic above.)
Find our interview with him after the jump.
Flavorwire: You studied at School of Visual Arts before moving to LA. What was your experience there?
James Jean: SVA was great. I would not be here if not for teachers I had.
FW: How do you feel about New York’s current art scene?
JJ: I think it’s a really exciting time to be a young artist in New York. With the Internet and the popularity of the graphic arts, illustration, comics and everything. It definitely made headway into the vaulted fine art scene in this area. When I was in school, this kind of thing was almost unimaginable — someone who was mostly known as a commercial artist having a big gallery show. Having that become a seamless experience was hard to envision. It’s just a really good time to pursue what you want. In my experience, I’ve been able to pursue a lot of publishing projects — to do interesting commercial work while pursuing my own personal work at the same time and having that all play out on an even field.
FW: How does it compare to LA?
JJ: I feel like it was like that in LA for a long time and now it’s sort of bleeding out everywhere.
FW: You’ve also done quite a bit of comic book cover art.
JJ: I did and I just stopped.
JJ: I wanted to concentrate on my painting full-time. Doing comic covers was a great gig. It was steady and it also garnered me a very loyal following. It introduced me to a large audience. I’m grateful for that. But, for a long time I felt compelled to create my personal work, and I finally feel like I can commit to that full-time.
FW: Do you have any favorite comic book covers you’ve created?
JJ: I feel like the covers I’ve done are all really different and that’s sort of what I’m known for. The diversity of approaches I’ve had and the covers from Fables to Batgirl — they are very different styles. I’m definitely nostalgic when I look back at certain covers and there’s something I did that I wouldn’t necessarily do now. But I feel it really works when I look at it. I have a new book out called Fables Covers — there are definitely pieces in each cover that recall what I was going through at the time. There’s something in each that I really like, so it’s hard to just pick one.
FW: Tell me about Kindling.
JJ: It’s my first official solo show. I’ve had other shows but it’s always been a mix of my commercial work and personal stuff. This is just purely personal work. Also, these are the largest paintings I’ve had to date. With Jonathan, basically I have complete freedom. I don’t think he gives much editorial direction to any of his artists. A lot of the artists have a very strong direction already so he just lets them do what they believe in.
FW: Is there an overall theme?
JJ: It’s always hard for me to say because I want my work to speak and reveal different narratives to different people. I think when you see the work, there are many layers to it and I’d say that the theme for most of the pieces is a sense of connection — this sort of thread that’s visible throughout many of the pieces. There’s this fine arabesque and it sort of connects all of the pieces together. I’m trying to create the most beautiful line possible and have that arch through the images. Ultimately, I hope the pieces speak for themselves. Because there is a lot of content in the work, you can interpret it however you want.