Creative Profile: Who Is James Jean And What Can We Expect From His Collaboration With BTS For HYBE Insight - Arts & Culture

The two-decade career of Jean is highlighted by inventive partnerships with fashion houses, graphic novels, and distinguished publications.

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It was recently announced that James Jean will be one of the first artists to be featured at the HYBE Insight, the entertainment company’s soon-to-open cultural space in their new building in Seoul. The Taiwanese-American artist will collaborate with BTS for an exhibition called Seven Phases, which will open on May 14.

While not a lot of official information has been released about the installation itself, many are interested in how Jean will incorporate his style with the globally-recognized boy band’s perspective. What’s for sure is that the group is a fan of the artist, with even BTS leader RM visiting one of Jean’s exhibits in 2019.

Early success

Born in Taiwan in 1979, Jean’s family moved to the New Jersey when he was three years old. He studied in Manhattan, at the School of Visual Arts, eventually graduating in 2001. Soon after, he started working as a cover artist for both Marvel and DC. His prolific work led to critical acclaim—earning him Eisner and Harvey awards—and traction for commissioned work and collaborations.

Some of the publications Jean has contributed to include The New York Times, Playboy, Time, and Rolling Stone. He has also done covers for Fables by Bill Willingham and The Umbrella Academy, Gerard Way’s cult favorite that became a Netflix hit.

Jean also has had a strong relationship with fashion, particularly with Prada. The Italian luxury house first partnered with the artist for a mural-wallpaper in its Soho, New York headquarters as well as their Spring-Summer 2008 line. Both featured fantastical imagery using fairies as the protagonist of the style story, which were revisited three years ago for the label’s menswear collection.

“I enjoy projects that are predicated on some kind of narrative, preferably one that feels personal and is not tied strongly to a specific time or location,” Jean tells North American textile company Maharam, who had a Q&A with the artist in time for their collaboration in 2013. “This way, it leaves space for me to weave various historical and geographical cues into a tapestry of images that feel familiar yet new and alien.”

Foray into fine art

In the same year of his Prada collaboration, Jean shifted his focus to painting. “I think the fine art always existed, and I always made work for myself, so when the commercial work was stripped away, the fine art was laid bare,” he told Maharam in 2013.  

When it comes to his creative process, the artist has the ability to focus. “I can very easily isolate myself for days working on a piece. I usually listen to podcasts or have documentaries playing,” he says in a 2015 interview with arts and culture magazine Neocha. “I’m addicted to new information, even though I retain very little. The voices allow me to become less self-aware about what it is I’m doing, which makes for a better picture and allows the process to surprise me along the way.”

In that same interview, he says that there are recurring elements in his work, which might give a clue to what the BTS collaboration might look like: “foliage, spaghetti, veins, wedges of stratified land/cake. These elements form the landscape of my subconscious and constantly assert themselves in my compositions,” he says.

Creative process

The artist has actually been to the Philippines on quite a few occasions. Through artists talks and events with Fully Booked, he shared insights to his creative process.  

“I think my emotional state is separate from the diligence I put into making my work because part of being an artist, your practice should be, I think, a daily thing. Going to the studio, just work at it,” Jean shares in a video series for Fully Booked back in 2012. “There’s something mechanical and unemotional about the process but you still can’t help to be human. So your body’s just sort of this mechanical vehicle for your emotions and I keep trying to keep that vehicle operating on a daily basis.”

The fuel, he continues to explain in the video, could be subdued or angry, but, hopefully, ever moving. “My worst fear is, you know, being crippled by some kind of depression and not being able to get up and do anything,” he says. “I think by forcing myself to work, it kind of defeats any kind of, you know, emotionally debilitating feelings that can happen.”

Jean describes his design philosophy in the video as being a concentration on aesthetics, virtuosity, profanity, and the sublime. According to him, it explores the whole spectrum of visual communication and dreams.

The artist ends the short video by saying that he probably wouldn’t change much in his artistic journey if given a chance.

“It all seems to have worked out throughout the disappointments, the rejections, and the lessons learned along the way. I think the important lesson I learned early on was that I should always make the work that I’m interested in rather than trying to fill the expectations of someone else,” he says. “And that lesson came about after only a few assignments, and I tend to learn quickly.”

For more information, visit HYBE Insight.

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