Jæn (@jaen) is an illustrator, painter, and master of multiple mediums — and is the creator of an upcoming epic set called Codex Fungi, a magnificent collection with over 100 unique specimens to enjoy. Based in Bordeaux, France, he has a distinctly European, French, perspective.
We wanted to ask him about where this set came from, how he manages to success across so many mediums, and what it’s like to taste sound, something he claims to have done once, when he was very young.
Look for his set to drop next Tuesday, Nov 12.
NeonMob: Your work spans such a broad swath of mediums and subject matter; what is it that you’re doing when you’re in your most effortless moments?
I do what bores me the most! Or what is the most challenging, because all the rest will be easy and fun anyway, so that the effortless state will come back by itself by just doing it.
NeonMob: Conversely, what do you struggle with, creatively?
Hmmm, that’s a tough question, I seldom struggle with anything: I have way too much imagination anyway, and if I start something, I just go on and try to make it as good as possible, because I can’t stop on the way and leave unfinished things behind. So, it would probably be knowing when to stop or take a break, or, sometimes, keeping things simple. When I don’t feel like doing something, I try to find the reason why, and if I cannot change my mind about it, I postpone it or abandon it. And I don’t get involved in commissions I have no interest in. You really have to keep it simple — do or don’t — and respect yourself and what you want in the process.
NeonMob: Tell us about the process you went through in creating more than 100 mushroom… characters? Was it easy to come up with the list and you just banged them out? Or did you have to really dig deep, and come up with some crazy stuff?
Actually, that was pretty crazy! I got an illustrated mushroom guide book for reference, read it thoroughly and learned some fascinating stuff (still puzzling scientists), made a list of the 88 species that appeared the most inspiring to me (the rest of the characters are species that don’t exist, or, well, not in this world), and popped them out 3 by 3 within 6 weeks, almost without any day off. I didn’t want to lose the initial spirit and also wanted to keep the same style for all of them, which is not easy because 100 designs is a lot with a lot happening in the process (you even have to refrain from getting better, haha).
Most of their appearance was influenced by their French or Latin name (corny plays on words included) and I had some elements I wanted to include anyway (like a pirate mushroom), so it went quite smoothly without much thinking effort. At the beginning, I could do one per day (concept, drawing, painting, scanning, coloring on computer), and I tripled that for the second half. At first, I was afraid the ‘shrooms would soon start to look alike, and I was happily surprised to see how quickly I could establish a connection with each of them and extract a unique essence to go on with.
NeonMob: When people collect this set and spend time with it, what’s the feeling that you hope people get?
I digress a bit, but I’m getting to the answer. When I was a scholar in Japanese, I wrote a 150 pages memoir on Murakami Takashi, studying all his work on the way. He made a funky mushroom compendium piece of art, and when asked about his inspiration for it, he cited a Japanese mushroom patterned cloth in an exhibition as the trigger, but also said something about the universally mysterious and magic thing that people feel toward these little beings (besides the obvious phallic symbol). I felt that was very true: they put such an instant fairy tale atmosphere when you find them deep in the woods. Also, to me, they are connected to the collector spirit of the botanical culture: 18th century scientists going around the world, drawing and describing as many species as they can find and storing them in books — are they not the most dedicated collectors? Hence the name “Codex Fungi” and the Latin names.
So, to answer the question, I hope that people will be able to appreciate the uniqueness of each character, that magic woods je-ne-sais-quoi that should be oozing out of them, and this old school collector spirit that is more about discovery, rather than possession. And if it can give the NeonMobsters the incentive to spend more time in the forest and connect with the beautiful mystery that lies within it, that would be the best thing.
The taste of sound and multiple mediums
NeonMob: Switching contexts a little, when you described your P.H.U.S.S. project, you said that you once could “taste a sound” and then produced this wonderful series of aural+visual compositions. I’m just curious — did sound play a role in your work on Codex Fungi?
Oh, you saw that! That was so much fun to do, closing your eyes and letting things come out of the sounds!
Well, sorry about the party-pooping answer but sound didn’t play any role whatsoever for Codex Fungi! :p Like, I wasn’t even listening to music during the process! It was a real sweatshop, haha!
NeonMob: Speaking of sound, you seem to embrace a variety of mediums, but a lot of your work seems to be done traditionally, with pen, pencil, or brush. When you approach a project, what determines the medium that you work in? Any favorites, and why?
Warning: another long-ass answer incoming!
I have always drawn; I can even remember my first drawings in kindergarten. So, if anything, that’s the first medium I ever used (along with making up stories in my mind, of course). I fell into music during high school, and being computer-literate since my early years, I soon learned the awesome ability to make everything by yourself in a music track thanks to computers. So, I started using machines for creative stuff — writing, photography, graphic design — and while it was just 100% sheer awesomeness for some time, I slowly grew more and more aware of what computer dependency implies, and how bad it wrecks my brain (and vision) if I use it too much. So, while I acknowledge the greatness of vector design, the infinite possibilities of image software, the flexibility that it offers, and the simple fact that it makes your stuff travel the world effortlessly, I now try to avoid using computers as much as I can.
As a consequence, I re-discovered the charming ways of traditional media first because I had to do it, but it has now become a choice: there is something about the texture of the paper, the imperfections, the gesture, that you lose when you go full digital. The original black and white paintings of Codex Fungi, while lacking the colors and the frame, have an indescribable quality.
Yet, mixing techniques is always interesting and one of my favorite ways is the one I used for Codex Fungi: traditional black and white drawing and painting — with digital colors.
NeonMob: Who are your artistic or creative heros? Who should we be checking out for the next NeonMob set?
Wow, way too many!
Music: Radiohead, Devenedra Banhardt, Portishead, The Black Keys, Queens of the Stone Age, Beck, Amon Tobin, and thousands of other bands, from Godspeed You! Black Emperor to Autechre, Tortoise or The Silk Road Project.
Visual arts: John Kenn Mortensen, Kilian Eng, Jim Woodring, McBess, DZO Olivier, Dali,Dhear One, Miyazaki Hayao, ObnoxiousMute, Cosmic Nuggets, V L A D I M I R, Larcenet,Joe Fenton, Atelier Olchinsky, Tatiana Plakhova, Julia Sonmi Heglund, Exit Man, Matt Lyon, Hector Mansilla, well I’m sorry I can’t recall all of the names!
I should also drop names of movie directors and animated movie directors, writers, and video game makers, but it’s endless, innit!
NeonMob: What about your perspective being in Bordeaux, France — a place that has a very long cultural and artistic history? Coming from Silicon Valley, we’re curious to know what the conversation about modern art is like there, and whether you feel like you’re surrounded by familiar or divergent company?
That is tricky, actually.
France has a huge cultural background, indeed, but sometimes it can be an obstacle for newness to find its place. Also, the general public has no problems with low brow or — should I say — works that are more “pop” or “commercial”, but the elite and the institutions seem to be quite the art establishment, and concerning that matter, Bordeaux is one of the worst cities. I mean, the youth do their best to get events to happen, and it has an impressive number of illustrators and graphic designers, but it is still soooo bourgeois! It definitely needs more proper spaces displaying something else than dead painters, conceptual artists, and rockstar photographers that everyone knows already. Things are better than what they used to be, but I feel it could be so much more adventurous. That’s it: it lacks fun and spontaneity. But I still love this place, it’s such a beautiful city and region. And conveniently close to the sea, the forests, the mountains and Spain. Along with the best wines, you can’t beat that (you can, but let’s pretend you can’t).
I’m not pro- or anti-American, but you gotta recognize that having started anew on another continent did good things to the old culture thing for you guys. I’m pretty adamant my career would be a lot easier if I was in the US. It might be a stereotype (and don’t take my opinion on France as a general perspective, by the way — it might just be me, and is just temporary), but Americans seem to be a lot more keen to let their inner child out. The French have a lot to offer, but this is yet something to improve. Of course, it’s just a general thing, gems are to be found anywhere.
NeonMob: Given the contrast between these two areas, what’s your impression of what’s happening with digital art, and what do you see as a way for the next generation to appreciate and support the arts?
Thanks for saving the vastest question for the last, dear — haha!
The digital art world is a bit overpopulated, but it definitely is an infinite reservoir of talented people going in all directions possible. Just browse through Behance.net a bit and you’ll find yourself overwhelmed with quality and creativity. Considering that, everyone knows what the main problems are: being able to live off it for the creatives, and process that huge source in an efficient way for the curators, critics, companies, consumers, etc. It’s the whole networking conundrum that is hard for the artists, so I’d say the best way people can support their favorite creators is to share their work and talk about them. Do it. And also comment on the artist’s work — stop just lurking and appreciating the artist’s work in silence because that’s the worst thing ever for us! Being afraid to look stupid because you don’t have anything especially deep to say about it is actually more stupid than dropping a simple “awesome!”.
Regarding the purely financial aspect of the job, it’s complicated. Ultimately, what I like the most is to do personal work and have it travel a bit, so if I can make ends meet solely by selling works in exhibitions, books, etc., I’m happy. But until it becomes this way, your personal work is mostly displayed freely on the Internet (or in real life spaces), and you do commissioned photography and graphic design to feed your wallet (which is not bad, can give you a lot of pleasure, and teaches you things on the way, of course). But it makes the comments and interactions all the more needed: if you don’t make money out of it, you hope that at least some guys and guyettes dig it! There are also different things being tried out now, such as a pay-per-month artworks renting with artists coming to deliver and install the work to your place. This is a really tremendous idea: the consumer meets the artist and can have a casual talk with him around a coffee; the work itself is not bought forever, and it’s cheaper than buying the real thing.
Regarding “appreciating an artwork”, we all know about the contemporary tendency to zap through everything at lightspeed, getting that ADD to an all-time high. So as a part of the public too, when my eyes or ears meet some work of art, I do my best to take time, to look at the details, to appreciate the context, etc. (eventually, if you get to the point where everything seems to suck, it most probably is just in the heart of the beholder).
Which gets me back to NeonMob: don’t get caught too much in the collecting thing. Sometimes, forget about the rarity, the completion of your sets, all the numbers. And click on a card, look at its shapes and colors, its mood, its name, its description — and all the things it doesn’t say. It is not just pixels; it is the weird connection spot between the universe the artist has built around the card, and what your imagination tells you about yourself.