James Jean is a double threat Taiwanese American artist – known equally well for both his commercial (DC Comics, ESPN, Prada, and Atlantic Records to name a few) and fine art gallery work. I know James Jean most from his arresting illustrations that grace the covers of Bill Willingham’s “Fables” graphic novel series. I am not one to ever keep up with series, but I cannot stop adding more of these books to my collection. Not only is the art obviously exquisite, but the stories are gripping, and the very reason I just cannot get into that “Once Upon A Time” TV show everyone is freaking out over – Same idea, but “Fables” is just so much better. Jean’s illustrations range from the ultra colorful to the monochromatic as featured below, but they all have a transparent, ghost-like quality to them that is just made for depicting fantasy characters, not fully “real” themselves. His website features a lot of his non-fables work, which was fascinating to see since I wasn’t as acquainted with it.
Madge Gill is not a current artist, being born in the late 1800s and passing in 1961. Though I usually highlight artists still working today, her primitive ink drawings drew me in the moment I first saw them. One of my workplaces had a couple-month-long focus on outsider art over the fall, which prompted me to want to learn more about the genre. Outsider art is literally art created by outsiders or untaught artists, art created outside the boundaries of official culture. I watched a documentary about outsider artists on youtube one evening, and Madge was one of the artists highlighted. She had a life filled with more hardship than many have to face. After delivering a stillborn child in 1920, one more painful life event, Madge claimed she had become inhabited by a spirit guide named Myrninerest. This connection continued throughout her life, and she would often go into trance like states, withdrawing more and more into herself. Though her detailed drawings of characteristic females; most of which took her only minutes at a time; continue to captivate viewers, it seems she never found peace. Near the end of her life, even her art-making had become a burden, more an obsessive-compulsion than a therapy. The biography on her website asks, “Are these in a sense self-portraits, or rather: attempts to stabilize her own fragile being, as it were through fleeting snapshots? Another reading equates the faces with Myrninerest, envisaged as the artist’s otherworldly alter ego, immune to the traumas of actual life.” (In the documentary, I noticed the alter ego’s name was pronounced as “My inner rest”, which would seem to suggest that the alter ego created as an escape or explanation for behavior she could not control is a plausible hypothesis). Her story is a sobering realization that although art helps us in coping with difficult emotions and can be a vital form of self-expression to those whose voices are stifled, creation alone is sometimes not enough, especially in isolation.
I first saw Yayoi Kusama’s work at The Mattress Factory on a school trip to Pittsburgh (shown in the photo below). Though I wasn’t familiar with her at the time, this installation was my absolute favorite. Same as with Madge Gill, I learned about Yayoi Kusama through my outsider art documentary binge. A clip of a similar installation to the one I saw was shown in the film, and I suddenly realized “Oh my gosh, I’ve walked around inside her work before!” Also similar to Madge Gill, Yayoi Kusama has wrestled with psychological issues throughout her life, though her story has a far happier ending. Kusama began creating art with polka dot motifs as early as 10 years old, one of her first pieces a drawing of her mother with dots emanating from her portrait (Her mother was physically and emotionally abusive). She also began suffering hallucinations at an early age, seeing these dots everywhere, flowing towards her, in her own words trying to “obliterate” her. To date, many of her works include the words and themes of “self-obliteration”. In 1973, she checked herself into Seiwa Hospital for the Mentally Ill and still lives there to this day by choice, her studio nearby. Kusama has reached out, and come to enjoy the residents and staff and art continues to be a source of joy and purpose in her life. A creator of all trades (and master as well), she creates paintings, sculpture, installations, clothing and accessories, fashion editorials, films, and poetry and short stories all cloaked in her trademark surreal, ultra colorful, polka dot covered world.
Martine Johanna is a Dutch artist who started out in fashion design, but left the industry desiring more freedom to devote to her own work. The fashion influence is evident in her figure’s pose, gaze, and design. What I love most is how she sometimes leaves areas of pieces less developed to draw the viewer’s eyes to where she wants them to rest. If you look through the rest of her work as well, you will also see how she uses bold, bright colors you wouldn’t think of using for skin tones like blues and yellows to render her figures’ flesh. Bringing these natural undertones to the forefront gives her work an otherworldly quality that it is impossible to look away from, and highlights her imaginative nature.
Google+ is a great place to discover artists as far as social media goes, and that is where I found Arabella Proffer. She was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan (woohoo, shout out to my home state, where I still reside) and now lives in Ohio (second shout out to where my parents are from and where most of my extended family still lives. I guess some cool art CAN come out of the midwest, huh?) – I thought that was pretty cool. Her work combines old school, aristocratic portraiture with pure 1980s punk rock and gothic culture. She also has an interest in medical history, remnants of which find their way into her work. The contrast of all these elements creates a tension that makes me want to get to know the fabulous women in her pieces, sit down and have a cup of coffee with them in their imaginary, velvet curtained living rooms – they all seem like so much fun.