To the Muses
BY JAMES JEAN
May 11, 2021
Or in the chambers of the East,
The chambers of the sun, that now
From ancient melody have ceas’d;
Whether in Heav’n ye wander fair,
Or the green corners of the earth,
Or the blue regions of the air,
Where the melodious winds have birth;
Whether on crystal rocks ye rove,
Beneath the bosom of the sea
Wand’ring in many a coral grove,
Fair Nine, forsaking Poetry!
How have you left the ancient love
That bards of old enjoy’d in you!
The languid strings do scarcely move!
The sound is forc’d, the notes are few!
– William Blake
As a 1.5 generation immigrant, having moved to the US from Taiwan at the age of three, I was accustomed to existing in the margins, an observer but never a full participant. Perhaps that’s why I felt so comfortable sketching commuters on the subway and random passersby during my travels – the sketchbook was a screen behind which I could hide and mediate any real interaction. Barriers upon barriers emerged constantly, and as a young artist without any art world connections in a world before social media, I was stumbling blindly through an inscrutable maze. A few months after the Blake show, I drew the Twin Towers as they fell across the river from my apartment in Brooklyn. For a while, making art seemed inconsequential in the face of this scar on the landscape and on the national psyche, and it was difficult to get any work.
My dense, narrative images were too esoteric for the editorial illustration world, and they were too technically proficient for the fine art world, but somehow they were just right for comic book covers. For seven years, I did hundreds of covers for DC, Marvel, and Dark Horse Comics. This surge of work finally pierced the veil between worlds, and I eventually did album covers (The Black Parade by My Chemical Romance), expansive fashion collaborations (Prada), and movie posters (The Shape of Water, Blade Runner 2049, mother!) for Academy Award-nominated and winning directors.
Despite my inherent shyness, my work had gained notoriety on the internet. People collected my drawings and paintings, and I noticed they were trading actively on the secondary market. Requests for original drawings and paintings increased. Eventually, I stopped illustrating and, turning my focus back to painting, had my first solo show in January 2009 in New York, right after the global financial crisis. The show sold out, but it took over half a year to settle the payments, and the gallery never quite recovered, eventually closing.
My second solo show opened in 2011 in Los Angeles, and during the opening, the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami struck Japan. Friends from Japan were attending my show, and instead of celebrating afterward, we convened late that night in our shared studio space to follow the news and contact loved ones overseas. (A woman named Chihiro cried as her father told her to stay in Los Angeles for her own safety, and a few years later, we would get married and start a family together.) The gallery would also close, as it became increasingly difficult for mid-tier galleries to survive amid the consolidation of power among blue-chip galleries.
My father grew up on a small farm in Taiwan and had the opportunity to move to the US and work for a large company—eventually, he left the safety of the corporate life to start his own business. He was in control of his own destiny, but lurking in the periphery was always the danger of failure. When I was a child, he had me deliver newspapers with him early in the morning at 5 am, and during our visits to the optometrist, he would try to sell titanium eyeglass frames on the side. I cringed at the sales pitches, and the hustle was ever-present. Though I rebelled and went to art school despite his disapproval, I now realize that I have inherited his entrepreneurial drive and the awareness that the structures around us that signify security and salvation are all but fragile illusions.
As we ineptly emerge from lockdown from yet another global disaster, I’m reminded that the life of an artist is especially precarious. Early on in my career, I started selling digital prints of my work, and became immersed in the technology. Most of the discourse around color gamut, paper quality, and the lightfastness of ink was generated by photographers, but I saw this as a means to sell my digital work, which would otherwise have no physical component. I coded my own web store and connected it to PayPal. The orders started coming in and I would fulfill each one by myself. Now, almost 20 years later, my prints and editions have developed into elaborate achievements in printmaking and fabrication, and the work that I make directly contributes to the livelihoods of numerous teams of people. The structures I have created to support my art have grown, the stakes are higher, and the vision for the work is grander.
In 2019, I had my first solo museum show in Seoul at the LOTTE Museum of Art, following and preceding institutional artists like Dan Flavin, Alex Katz, and Basquiat. This was a major inflection point for me, and also represented another tear in the veil of the ever-shifting cultural landscape. I was an artist that didn’t have the proper trajectory or the right pedigree, but through sheer force of will, the foresight of the curators, and the momentum of my audience, a new path was forged through the bramble.
These musings are meant to introduce my history to a new audience, explain why I became interested in the technology, and describe how my practice fits within this space. Selling digital assets and recording the work onto the blockchain will merely be another layer in the multitude of methods I use to sustain my studio and creative endeavors. This space is meant for industrious artists who seek to bolster their independence in an increasingly digital world and for tech-savvy collectors who are interested in direct patronage. Collecting, and the compulsion and connoisseurship behind it, completes the ecosystem of art production, be it physical or digital. The legacy structures of galleries and corporations will still function for artists of different ambitions, and the challenges of gatekeeping, inequality, and distribution of financial resources will continue to exist in the matrix of competing human desires…perhaps one day an AI will break the encryption of our deeply embedded yearnings and liberate us from pain and suffering, but for now, the machines have created network effects that will continue to astonish and devastate at a rapid pace. Though much is uncertain, what I can be sure of is that I will continue to explore new territories and break old boundaries until the muses have ceased their song.