Artist Interview: Jæn on His Second NeonMob Collection, Masq

"Masq" is NeonMob's second collection featuring the work of French artist, Jæn. His first collection, the mushroom-themed "Codex Fungi," was released in November 2013, and we interviewed Jæn two years ago. I wanted to check back in with the artist to see what he's been up to since then, and to ask him about the making of "Masq." 

"Kokon" from "Masq"

"Kokon" from "Masq"

First, let's get some personal questions out of the way. Do you still live Bordeaux? If so, do you think you'll stay there? If not, where will you move next?

Since last time, I still live in Bordeaux, and the quality of life is still great. Despite some improvements, things are still a bit slow here regarding the culture I like (pop surrealism/low brow/illustration/character design), so I continue to get gigs in foreign countries and plan to do residencies and short stays abroad (say, three months to year) in the near future, but that is also because I want it that way. My work seem to appeal to people in native English-speaking places (namely California) and Asia. That's something I want to make bloom. Plus, I can speak English and Japanese, so it's always nice to be able to use these!

Next stop: funding my participation to character design- focused Pictoplasma Academy in Berlin in late September. That sounds really great. I've always loved Pictoplasma (I actually learned how wide the character design spectrum could go thanks to them), and this week of training sounds perfect to learn how to make more of my characters, and not stay in What-I-Already-Know Land in many fields.

The look of this second collection, "Masq," is very different from your first collection, "Codex Fungi." Was this something you were very aware of when you started creating this collection?

Compared to "Codex Fungi," "Masq" has very different aesthetics, indeed. Whereas the mushroom characters were primarily a sum of traditional works (pens and sumi on watercolour paper), using my computer only for the colours and framing, "Masq" sprouts from faces drawn with a pen on paper in a very minimal/tribal pure black-and-white style, and relied on a lot more complex digital editing – adding bodies, vectorising and cleaning/simplifying the shapes, making backgrounds, textures, lighting, framing (the source of it is ancient Italian painting), and some graininess for good measure. I made stickers out of the original, monochrome simple faces, by the way.

"Escapism" by Jæn is part of his Synecular series

"Escapism" by Jæn is part of his Synecular series

Actually, looking at all your work, it seems like every project has a pretty different look. Do you think you have an overall style? That is, if someone were to ask you what your style is, what would you say?

My portfolio has indeed a big variety of styles as I need to show the width of skills for work purposes, though I continue to trim it down every now and then, and will reorganize it in the following month. 

An example from his "Bonebreathing" series

An example from his "Bonebreathing" series

At this time, if the person in front of me is not specifically looking to collaborate on a graphic design job, I would present my work mainly through my latest art series ("Synecular" and "Bonebreathing," and character design-focused illustrations ("Codex Fungi" and "Masq," of course, "Nanokami," "Stachüs," "The Upward Fall" or "Badasses Roaming the Skies"), adding a few other different works for a more honest look at what I can do (like "Set and Setting," "Psycake," "The Apocalypse of Janus," or "Observe").

From "Observe"

From "Observe"

I currently define myself as an artist-illustrator and versatile creative, fueled by pop surrealism, low brow, street art, character design, contemporary art, and illustration.

"Muimui" from "Masq"

"Muimui" from "Masq"

Getting back to "Masq" – It is not a style I plan to develop further: it is a mix of something I wanted to experiment with and the need to finally let those characters out, as the first Masqs date back to at least 10 years ago! I'm really happy with how it came out, it ended up as the beautiful sum of funky portraits I was looking for.

"Eetcho" from "Masq"

"Eetcho" from "Masq"

What are Masqs? Do you feel like any of the Masqs represent you?

As you will see when you collect "Masq," there is quite a rich storytelling going on: some characters only needed a few lines about themselves, but most of them point out to and enrich other characters' stories, and everything that make up their way of life, psychology, history, spirituality, customs, hobbies, and existential questions. It all forms a puzzle-like, network-shaped story that requires collecting as much as you can if you want to understand who they are and how they relate to us, each other, themselves, and the universe. It's also fun, because I like to chuck in stupid things between lengthy sentences (phew!).

Two of them are kinda self-portraits, and some of the chase cards will show you the evolution from the earliest and ugliest Masqs to the more refined versions of today's collection, going from concept-less tribal-ish designs to symbols for the different personas coexisting in you (my?) mind, then to the human minds squatting entities they are now. The range of personalities and facial features is now quite huge, so you can find some things I was or I am, or bits from friends and famous personalities among them, although I just made up most of them.

"Tô" from "Masq"

"Tô" from "Masq"

The mushrooms of "Codex Fungi" are framed, and you've also framed all your "Masq" characters. Why do you choose to create frames around your pieces?

Regarding the frames, I used them in "Codex Fungi" because it strengthened the coherence of the whole set and embedded the rarity in the design itself (each rarity setting has a different colour code - "oh I got a black wood card, saahhweeeet!'). And, ultimately, because adding frames was like putting fancy clothes on them.

I kept them for "Masq" for several reasons. Aside from the previously said effect on tightening consistency, the core of the concept being purely black and white characters, I used frames to create more space for colours, which allow for these characteristic dual colour schemes you see now. Lastly, it's also another element of the story: if you are lucky enough, you will meet a fellow Masq who appears to be a painter: this whole series of framed portraits are actually its work.

I don't know if I will stick with frames forever on NeonMob, but being a great place to experiment with different aesthetics for each set, that could also be the only signature element for me through the different universes I make! Also it enhances the traditional heritage from the old printed collector cards of my childhood, like Magic The Gathering or Dragon Ball Z cards, which all had specific framing that immediately set the mood. It's like a very adequate and familiar window that tells you right away the universe you will be able to see through it.

"Viralkat" from "Nanokami"

"Viralkat" from "Nanokami"

If you were to create another collection for NeonMob, what would it be? 

There's this character design project I cited previously, "Nanokami," that relies on a solid concept and consequently takes more time to make than what my usual NeonMob creative frenzy allows for. I want this to be first published as a small book (or cards/postcards book, art toys, etc.), and it's really hard to find a publisher for a graphic content that is neither a graphic novel nor a famous artist's anthology, especially if it's your first publishing endeavour and you don't have an agent (most publishers only talk to agents). So, I will take "Nanokami" to Pictoplasma this summer and see how it grows from there, and if copyrights and marketing choices allow me to, I would definitely publish them on NeonMob too, as it really fits in here! 


Anyway, stay tuned with NeonMob and my work. There are a lot of good things to expect in the future!

Interview edited for clarity by Sarah Han