In 2001 I was twenty-one years old, just graduated from art school, and living in Brooklyn,” notes James Jean in his conclusion to Rebus. “Through the windows of my loft, I witnessed the collapse of the Twin Towers.” Jean goes on to say that the events of 11 September made his paintings and art feel “insignificant”.
In the ten years since, Jean has worked tirelessly to find meaning in his work. And Rebus stands as a convincing argument that he has. He’s worked for DC comics – designing covers for its Fables series – as well as Prada, ESPN and Atlantic Records. Rebus is a compendium of the artist’s work, with the focus on personal projects rather than commercial ones, although it does feature murals and wallpapers that he created for Prada.
Jean’s work is arranged in chapters covering his various thematic and stylistic periods, beginning with Kindling, his first solo show in 2008. Kindling investigates cannabalism, self-mutilation and paraphilia in lovingly rendered, if disturbing, images. A man is cracked open by a little girl to reveal frogs in place of internal organs. A woman with a head made of butterflies admires herself in the mirror.
It’s in his other projects that Jean is at his most interesting and challenging, though, frequently colliding Hayao Miyazaki-like animals and insects with Francis Bacon-esque disassembled humans. His 2002-2004 compilation Recess is the most disturbing, with young children looking blankly on as a mad teacher removes a kid’s heart, and a naked woman lynched on a school bus.
What’s most striking about Jean’s work is his ability to work in numerous mediums and always provide interesting and powerful creations. The majority of his paintings are created traditionally in either acrylic or oils, but he has ventured into Photoshop for others. His works are noticeably categorised into different styles, such as pop-art or strikingly surreal landscapes, but the themes of death, children and nature always recur.
Rebus is an interesting overview of a man who can reference bodily horror one minute, and 1980s computer games the next. Jean needn’t have worried about his work being insignificant: this book is testament to one of the most significant artists of the century.