A Not So Mid-Life Crisis Show: 5 Questions with Jean Jullien on His First European Museum Show @ MIMA, Brussels

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MIMA Museum, Brussels // June 30, 2023 – December 31, 2023

There are some quite wonderful turns of phrase in my conversation with Jean Jullien last week. Things like “de-zooming” and “managing attention” or “progression in distance.” I love all of these ways of thinking about thinking and thinking about the works of Jean Jullien, as he has spent a career in fine art, design, illustration and installation works where he is both creating a distance for which the viewer can see an expanse of the world but also a nuanced and detailed scope of how our personal lives can interconnect. Jullien just opened STUDIOLO, his first solo European museum exhibition, now on at MIMA in Brussels, and on that occasion, we thought it may be nice to sit down with one of our favorite artists and understand more about what a de-zoom may look like when it comes to art. 

Evan Pricco: You seem to be getting more and more comfortable about building an environment of a show, giving your artwork an extra world to live in. When do you think you realized how important that was, and how have you learned more about exhibition design from it? 

Jean Jullien: I’ve always been fascinated by storytelling and how a good story can capture your attention. I did a lot of one liners in illustration and progressively (through books, videos and gallery shows) I managed to create more dedicated times of attention from the viewer. But with a show of this scale, you can really articulate an environment around an idea and take the time to say what you have to say in an immersive way. I think managing the attention is a big notion for me. I want to create more and more moments and space dedicated to narration.


What are you showing at MIMA? Is this purely a retrospective or do you have new works? 

The work presented at the MIMA is entirely new and everything has been created for this show. It was important to me, given the platform that I was offered, to take time and effort to create a body of work that was coherent and articulated around a narrative. The show progresses in matter, space and time in a chapter-like way. We start at the bottom with a recap of what I’ve done so far and what led to the show (I joke that this is more or less a mid-life crisis show with reflections that arise when you’re at that time of your life. A crossroad sort of time). Then a graphic novel room  as a preamble, presenting what the show will be about. Then a reflection on childhood storytelling, followed by a series of portraits of friends, families and followers. A series of everyday paintings, like the photos we take on our phones, but painted. Upstairs start with Nature on epic proportions, with a series of giant canvases depicting storms, sunsets and jungles.

This leads to a collection of surf paintings where the wave is almost occulted and the human element is a tiny graphic punctuation here and there in the format. Then is a study of humanity and its thirst and fear of nature. How it conquers it on the beach with apparatus and how it tries to recreate a tailored and comfortable version of the wild with parks and gardens. I also have a conversation with my mom about architecture and the notion of home as well as one with my father about town planning and how our collective story is  just a gathering of individual experiences. And to materialize this thought, that summarize the whole show: I created a 13m by nearly 3m tall subjective and non exhaustive timeline that goes from the prehistoric era to a plausible future. And this conclusion is my to be continued, showing hints of a graphic language that is more about storytelling and sits on the fence between drawing and painting. The show gathers every type of work that I’ve done and does and binds it into a single practice, where every tool is used to tell the story.

There’s also a progression in distance that I think is interesting: it starts with the autobiographical self, then childhood, then the individual, then that individual gathered in a group, then that group in a context in everyday scenes, then zooming even further out so that the context (nature) is everything and the protagonists are reduced to a mere punctuation, then us as a group trying to deal with that sublime context with the notion of civilisation and the act of taming/ living with/in nature. And finally, the furthest de-zoom in time and space with a timeline encompassing humanity’s journey from beginnings to end.

What has the move from London back to Paris done for you and your work? 

It coincided with a lot of life changes: I had my first child, I was getting tired of the fast pace at which I was producing illustrations for commercial jobs and social media and I wanted to slow things down overall. I had just discovered surfing and painting and felt like a change of decor would be beneficial. I don’t think it was specifically London to Paris that mattered, more the move from one time in life to another.

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I’ve always asked you this, but you have such a defined style as an illustrator and a completely different and defined style as a painter. Is it easy for you to jump between the two styles? 

I was reflecting on that before the show and I guess I thought they were different before but the more I paint and the more the work affirms itself (to me at least), the more I see it as very similar to my drawing. The brush work is the same, it’s just “de-zoomed” so to speak. And more suggestive rather than descriptive. The show at the MIMA is actually a long reflection on that subject matter and talks about it at great length; what makes a piece of work drawing and what makes it painting since it’s all done with the same tools. But in general, I love playing with the notion of drawing and experimenting with it in different supports and materials. It’s by the multiplicity of trials that I get a sort of overview and understanding of my practice: it’s based on the observation of a very complex and diverse everyday environment. It’s only fitting that the mediums used to tell these observations are diverse, too.

You always have these very personal paintings, works that really speak about family and memory and this idea of time-off away from a hustle and bustle. What is inspiring you these days? Are you still finding time for yourself to explore these works in a way that satisfies you? 

For sure. And as time passes, I love more and more how they seem to be an ongoing summary of one’s life. I think it’s a nice thing. But same as when I started painting and it seemed like a departure from drawing (but it wasn’t), there are other subject matters I’m excited to explore in painting. I guess the show at the MIMA is also a reflection on what I am doing now, where I am in my “career” and how it relates to the world around us. But it also introduces what I think will be the next step of my work. Based on more narrative work and an exploration of storytelling. The show in itself is organized like a semi narrative. There’s a progression in the space and the matter being discussed. The final room is something very different from anything people have seen of my work so far. It’s a 13m by nearly 3m tall timeline of the work mixing facts and fictions.

Jean Jullien: STUDIOLO will be on view at MIMA in Brussels through December 31, 2023.

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