'Eternal Spiral' captures surreal universe

Tan Weiyun
Asian-American James Jean's first solo exhibition in China features about 100 artworks from his 20-year artistic career.
Tan Weiyun
'Eternal Spiral' captures surreal universe
Image Courtesy of Artist James Jean and Gallery All

The Modern Art Museum Shanghai is hosting James Jean's "Eternal Spiral," his first major solo exhibition in China.

The exhibition, which was curated by Robin Peckham with Lu Mingjun serving as the academic curator, is a chef-d'oeuvre of nearly 100 pieces created by Jean throughout the course of his 20-year artistic career, including large-scale paintings, sculptures, animations, prints, sketches and color studies.

They will be on display in the museum's three-story exhibition space until February 12, 2023.

Visitors can explore the artist's imagination and analyze the surreal universe as he combines Eastern and Western cultures and mythological and philosophical images.

Jean, who was born in China's Taiwan in 1979, moved to the United States when he was 3 years old, along with his family. He struggled in his early years in the US to integrate his identity, which resulted in a fragmented ego that floats between different worlds. Fortunately, he discovered art as a means of increasing his familiarity with the world and a means of grounding himself in reality and self-awareness.

He perceived an analogy in the life and work of Italian painter Giuseppe Castiglione (1688-1766), who spent 51 years working as a court painter in China.

Castiglione pioneered the blending of European and Chinese sensibilities in his work by bringing Western rendering techniques to traditional Chinese silk scroll painting. Similarly, Jean draws from a variety of popular and obscure cultural elements to produce hybrid narratives that combine conventional and digital storytelling.

"Stampede" by Jean alludes to Castiglione's "One Hundred Horses" and Leonardo da Vinci's (after Peter Paul Rubens) "The Battle of Anghiari." In the composition, there are eight horses, each with its own distinct rider. They are on their way to the next battle, having survived their last encounter with the enemy. The lines and washes, rendered in phthalo blue, are reminiscent of the glazes on Chinese and Korean porcelain.

Although the painting's passionate lines and brushstrokes suggest movement and intensity, the lines and exposed canvas nevertheless imply elegant fragility.

'Eternal Spiral' captures surreal universe
Image Courtesy of Artist James Jean and Gallery All

"Stampede," 2018, acrylic on Canvas

Using a variety of ancient Greek and Biblical sources, as well as a wide spectrum of folktales, from Germanic fairy tales to Japanese, Chinese and Korean sources, Jean retells historical tales to create his own realm of mythology.

The character of the woodcutter often appears in Jean's paintings. It was created in 2008 and was inspired by a firewood-carrying figure from his "Kindling" series. The most recent incarnation of the "Woodcutter" resembles Ninomiya Kinjiro (1787-1856), a Japanese philosopher and a representation of self-education who is commonly shown as a youngster holding a book in his hand and a bundle of firewood on his back.

The faces in the boy's bundle in Jean's big sculpture "Woodcutter" have an animistic theme, revealing the spiritual energy of the wood after it has been chopped and collected.

'Eternal Spiral' captures surreal universe
Ti Gong


The painting "Knitting" expresses a new mythology of reconciliation. The figure in the picture is weaving or knitting, a behavior that can be related to many cultures' mythology, such as Penelope in the Odyssey, who showed incredible patience by weaving and undoing her weaving, to wait for her husband Odysseus to return home.

In Jean's painting, the figure performs a symbolic gesture tying the heavens back to nature, as the negative space of the sky turns into a thread. The patterns of the red-crowned crane, the phoenix's feather and the peacock's tail bring a distinct East Asian mythological element with strong symbolism.

'Eternal Spiral' captures surreal universe
Image Courtesy of Artist James Jean and Gallery All

"Knitting," 2022, acrylic on canvas

The character in the "Descendent" series has often appeared in Jean's artwork since 2019. The boy in "Descendent" is forever falling through the sky. As long as he is dreaming, he is safe, protected by the petals of giant flowers. But if he wakes up, he will plunge fast into the earth and faceplant into reality. He is drifting in an everlasting dream fall.

It might be a self-portrait of the artist himself – not Asian enough for Asia and not American enough for America, just floating in between, a cultural castaway.

A falling boy in the work "Bouquet II" from "Descendent" is pulled into a giant cluster of fictional flowers by a pair of hidden hands. In prior works, the boy's fall through space was cushioned by botanical buoys, but in this picture, the descendent's trajectory is controlled by an unseen force.

Taking inspiration from Dutch still life painting of the 1600s, "Bouquet II" incorporates a garish cartoon aesthetic tarnished by a patina of dripping acidic texture, hinting at the descendent's detachment from any particular time or place, his position in space being throttled by divine forces.

'Eternal Spiral' captures surreal universe
Image Courtesy of Artist James Jean and Gallery All

"Bouquet II" from "Descendent"

The exhibition also includes three large-scale paintings that are being exhibited in China for the first time, six sculptures, five of Jean's most recent creations in 2022, and a variety of documentary materials that demonstrate the artist's creative process.

There are more than 100 woodcut prints, including movie posters of Michelle Yeoh's "Everything Everywhere At Once" and the Oscar-winning "The Shape of Water." The exhibition also features hundreds of sketches and color studies of the artist's works, as well as 10 sketchbooks from the artist's early painting career, throwing light on the artist's creative process.

Exhibition info:

Date: Through February 12 (closed on Mondays), 10am-6pm

Venue: Modern Art Museum Shanghai

Address: 4777 Binjiang Blvd, Pudong New Area

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