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The cosmic vitality of James Jean’s “Woodcutter Awakening” renews a dedicated artistic practice

James Jean, celebrated visual artist and illustrator of the "Umbrella Academy" comics, drops his genesis NFT, a culmination of 15 years of work, on SuperRare.

Feb 15, 2022 Artist Profiles / Profiles

8 months ago

James Jean’s latest work reaches deep into his kaleidoscopic oeuvre to invoke thoughts of introspection, dynamic rejuvenation, and even Californian wildfires. “Woodcutter Awakening” is a digitally-rendered animation created in collaboration with Zachary Corzine, a hyper-real 3D director specializing in astonishingly organic designs. The piece explores the relationship between artist, craft, and dedication by depicting the fiery sacrifice and self-assured rejuvenation of a young boy ruminating in a sun-dappled glade. His prayer-like posture belies the weight of the burden strapped to his back, suggesting a profound peace that is then amplified by the serene manner in which he endures the flaying fire that consumes his body. The entirety of his freighted form, seemingly composed of gray agate, gives way to an enlightened incarnation that melds with his collected labors, lashings transformed into pulsing arteries, blurring the line between symbiont and parasite.

“Woodcutter Awakening” is part of a continuing culmination within Jean’s work. The Los Angeles-based artist is constantly reimagining the manner in which the universe that he’s created throughout his 20-year career can be reoriented to tell new stories and provide new revelations.

When [I] develop these characters, it’s great to kind of have them interact with this library of images that I developed over the years. You take all these parts of your visual vocabulary and build new sentences out of it.

— James Jean

The journey of the woodcutter began with Jean’s 2007 etching “Kindling,” featuring a hunched old man lugging his burden of sticks through a dense, spirit-filled wood. For the artist, the image of wood-gathering highlighted the virtues of diligence and hard work, a concept to which he returned throughout the years in pieces such as “Offering” and “Kindling III.” As he revisited the character, a parallel to Japanese scholar Ninomiya Kinjirō began to emerge. The self-educated 19th-century philosopher, agrarian reformer, and economist harnessed those very same virtues to rise from unknown peasant farmer to one of the most famous and respected men of the Edo period. Ninomiya’s success through dedicated self-education resonated with Jean in the way that he had navigated the art world without connections while still maintaining a daily studio practice. Jean’s sedulous attention to craft was mirrored in his work—a constant collection of thoughts and self, depicted through the methodical gathering of kindling.

ThThe woodcutter’s latest iteration pulls from Jean’s past renditions while also incorporating the nuances of its change in medium. Through 3D animation, Jean accesses the solemn humanity of “Kindling” and “Offering,” contrasting it against the psychedelic whimsy of “Kindling III” and “Kindling V.” The introduction of a young boy ablaze imbues the deeply personal leitmotif with both fantastic vitality and enchanting tension. As one witnesses the measured immolation of the subject’s stoney flesh, reminiscent of Malcolm Browne’s haunting photograph of the burning Buddhist monk, Thích Quảng Đức, one is held in that meditative grip by the atmospheric soundscape of record producer Nosaj Thing’s hypnotic accompaniment. This haunting incongruity serves to reassure the viewer, prompting them to consider the origins of the flames, while the work’s title offers another clue. The woodcutter’s eyes may remain closed throughout the entirety of his phoenix-like transmogrification, but the first bit to emerge from the flames is an open eye situated atop his head. It is here that we touch on the manner in which Jean views who he is: “I guess it’s kind of like a stoicism in a way. If you’re able to get yourself in a mindset where you’re not affected by frivolous things, you can get through anything. And that’s how I sort of see myself.”

The woodcutter transforming from stone to color through fire (1)

The woodcutter transforming from stone to color through fire (2)

While known predominantly for painting and illustration, “Woodcutter Awakening” isn’t Jean’s first digital piece. He is enamored with the processes and challenges involved in collaborating on 3D work. “There’s a lot of similarity between both approaches,” Jean told SuperRare. “When you’re engaged with the canvas, there’s just a lot of push and pull. Pushing elements away and then bringing them back out.” He likened this back-and-forth between artist and canvas to the conversations he had with Corzine in creating the final version of the piece.

It’s amazing what you can do with simulations and rendering and algorithms. As a painter, it takes so long to be able to create a convincing semblance of these materials. But with computers, the distance between the mind’s eye and what you want to create is just much closer. That’s what I love about this collaboration and the whole medium.

— James Jean

The animation, clocking in at just over a minute, will be a centerpiece at a museum show scheduled for this upcoming summer. The video, projected in 8K resolution at a larger-than-life scale and accompanied by professionally mixed, high-definition audio, will create an immersive experience, enveloping the viewer in a truly mesmerizing moment.

The woodcutter being engulfed by nature and turned back to stone (1)

The woodcutter being engulfed by nature and turned back to stone (2)

The vibrant, refined freedom of Jean’s often trippy canvases may inspire a viewer to assume that he is something of a wild child—the fantastic landscapes and color palettes; the unbridled, imaginative flair of his forms; and the recurring imagery of mind-altering mushrooms. In fact, all of these components are the issue of a powerfully inventive yet even-keeled demeanor. Jean has never felt the need to use substances to elicit the high degree of creativity that he commands. Instead, he relies upon his own innovation and inspiration from artists of the past, such as Marco d’Agrate’s sculpture of “Saint Bartholomew Flayed,” which led to the pronounced musculature of “Offering” and “Woodcutter Awakening.” Jean is an artist who consistently returns to his process in order to reinvent himself, allowing his connection to his own personhood to fuel his ability to stimulate artistic renewal. “It does feel like there can be heavy burdens at times,” Jean expressed. “But that’s how you become resilient and achieve some kind of enlightenment.” 


Collin Frazier

Collin Frazier is a Brooklyn-based writer, podcaster, and mixologist. He obtained his MFA from The New School and his work can be found in Epiphany Magazine.



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