James Jean: Melon, oil on canvas

Work / Art

James Jean’s phantasmagorical world of technicolour fever dreams

Looking at the work of LA-based, Taipei-born James Jean is like stepping in a hallucinatory world with its own internal logic, dimensions and flow of time. Simultaneously tranquil and tumultuous, his large-scale and immensely detailed paintings evoke the phantasmagorical chaos of dreams.

Creatures, critters and the tendrils of foliage wrap themselves around spectral figures, occupying worlds that seem to bleed out of the canvas. He casts his surreal and decaying fantasy worlds in technicolour blues, oranges and gold. “I enjoy making colours vibrate against each other to create sparks in the eye,” says James. “Despite my efforts to force my work to go in a certain direction, I keep going back to these dreamlike images. I suppose they are a selfish, self-indulgent escape from the anxiety-ridden age we live in.”

His spirits occupy a world pervaded by chrysanthemums, neon tigers and unmistakably ukiyo-e waves. James frequently invokes the ocean as a theme, coiling the turbulent waves around the figures in the scenes. “During art school in New York, I was introduced to Hokusai and Yoshitoshi. Perhaps there is a shared obsession with drawing and making graphic narratives that spans the centuries,” he explains. “I’m in Japan at the moment, and it’s an endlessly inspiring place.”


James Jean: Adrift, mixed media on four canvases


James Jean: Adrift II, acrylic on canvas

James works mostly in acrylic, oil and ink, but also produces a lot digitally, frequently blending the two: “For me, there’s no divide between traditional and digital. Whatever works to create the most effective images and interesting surfaces in the work,” he says. “Last year, I had one of my pieces reproduced as a woodblock print by the Adachi Institute of Woodblock Prints in Tokyo, and there’s nothing like the delicacy and subtle textures of carved lines pressed into soft pulp.”

James’ pictures of the floating world, carrying cryptic names such as Adrift, Rebus, Melon, and Nervosa, develop a strong sense of narrative across a series and within a singular painting itself. “I like to coordinate different moments in each piece that are like notes building up to an unresolved chord. The piece feels like it’s going somewhere, but the conclusion is unclear,” he explains.


James Jean: Liber Novus, acrylic, oil, and pastel on canvas


James Jean: Pomegranate, ukiyo-e print by Adachi Institute of Woodblock Prints in Tokyo

His recent series Zugzwang, exhibited at Hidari Zingaro Gallery in Tokyo, is likewise an exercise in a distinctive colour palette. Here, blue and red reign supreme. James’ work loses none of its eye-catching vigour, packing a ludicrous amount of detail into his images, dark blue lines contrasting with the lighter tones like illustrative cyanotype. “The pieces were a combination of printmaking (etching) and painting. I wanted the colour palette to unify the series, as if the characters were all breathing the same cerulean atmosphere,” explains James.

James’ latest collection of work Zugzwang, curated by Takashi Murakami in a hardbound book, is currently available from James’ website in a limited print run of 2000.


James Jean: Mockingbird, from Zugzwang


James Jean: Yayoi, from Zugzwang


James Jean: Kali, from Zugzwang


James Jean: Piggyback, from Zugzwang


James Jean: Zugzwang Installation, Hidari Zingaro Gallery


James Jean: Kindling Installation


James Jean: Seasons, acrylic on four wood panels


James Jean: Tiger II (Schema), Graphite and Digital.


James Jean: Pagoda, spraypaint, ink, and acrylic on 84 wood panels (left); Hiker Blue, Acrylic, Lacquer, and Oil on Dimensional Wood Panel (right)


James Jean: Adrift, mixed media on four canvases in his studio


James Jean: Rebus installation