Big cities offer incredible opportunities to meet new people, discover unique places, and surround yourself with a wide array of cultural options. But they can also be stressful, harsh, and too fast-paced. Weighting on the debate between city vs countryside, artist Jean Jullien has created a new series of small paintings, that he’s currently exhibiting at Hashimoto Contemporary in New York City. The solo show, titled Lolo, is on view through April 27th, and we took the opportunity to speak with the French artist about his favourite open-air activities, the ups and downs of urban life, and art as escapism.
Hi Jean, it’s a pleasure to speak with you. Your practice spans painting, illustration, graphic design, photography, publishing… You’re like a contemporary Renaissance man! I guess you were a creative kid (most of us are at a young age), but how did you stay like that as you grew older?
I think I just kept on playing with it. Having fun, trying things, experimenting. Doing it for work as much as I did it for pleasure. This way, there’s a sense of ownership and empowerment in the way my work goes. I don’t want to get tired by it, so I try to challenge it continuously to keep it exciting for me and the audience.
You’ve just opened Lolo at NYC’s Hashimoto Contemporary gallery. Congratulations! In this solo show, you present a body of work that tackles the dichotomy between living a big city vs living in the countryside. As of now, where do you stand in that debate? How do you balance the stress of Paris with some much-needed natural environments?
It’s a constant love/hate relationship; a perpetual ambivalence of feelings. I love so much about the city: it's my natural environment and a place where I thrive socially and creatively. I love being constantly surrounded by inspiring things. I love the architecture, love the endlessness of it. And I equally feel suffocated by it, feel annoyed at antisocial behaviours and exhausted by the noise, visually upset by some of its architecture, etc. But I realise how banal this ambivalence is: Everything can be seen with a positive or negative light depending on the moment. So I guess this show is, if anything, trying to open a discussion.
Most creative people move to big cities looking for opportunities – it’s where most art galleries, agencies, magazines/media, production companies, etc. are. You actually moved from your hometown, Nantes, to London (for studying) and Paris. Do you ever see yourself returning to Nantes or maybe moving to a smaller place on the outskirts of Paris (or any other big city)?
Yes, I often think about it and think it would be a better alternative than a more drastic move to a completely remote location in the wild. But again, it would have to offer something different (like waves!), otherwise, I'd probably end up comparing locations and miss the big city.
Hiking, windsurfing, skiing… You’re depicting lovely activities in the open air through your new body of work. What are the ones you enjoy the most doing?
I love surfing. I’m not good at it but I love how it makes me feel. It puts all matters into perspective. It makes me realise vividly the smallness of my person in comparison to the absolute and raw power of a natural element like the ocean. It's humbling! I started surfing at the same time that I had my first child and started painting. It coincided with an overall slowing down. Both painting and surfing are almost meditative for me now.
I find it funny that these works are small or medium-scale. Historically, most pastoral scenes and landscape paintings were huge and featured an even bigger, more ornamented frame. It’s so contrasting to the past but so true to the lives we live now – all squeezed into these tiny apartments and rooms. Was it a conscious decision?
Kind of, yes. I had just finished a big project that had devoured all my time (Sculptures at Le Bon Marché)  and hadn’t painted since my last show a couple of months before. So when I got back into it, I approached the work like I do in my sketchbook. Looser, more based on an impression. It had a texture that I really like and that ties in well with the mistakes of the brush I normally use for drawing. The size also made them pocketable, they reminded me of snaps you see on your phone, on a small screen. Colourful little windows of escapism.
“It’s in our nature to want to bond and find company, and cities are the culmination of that. But it’s also a bit too dense and fast paced.”
Art can be a way of escapism. Is it, for you?
Totally. It’s a safe haven built by the act of creating something that makes me happy. It’s strange because it’s always anchored in reality, in things I lived. But yet it offers me respite. It's like observing the world from a nice bubble.
And continuing with that, do you hope to offer an alternative to your audience, a way to escape from their realities through your art?
I wouldn’t be so presumptuous. But, personally, looking at things that make me happy gives me solace. So, hopefully, it can do the same for appreciative viewers.
In a way, all of us living in big cities need to take breaks from the traffic jams, the pollution, the stress, the dirt, the tourism, and even the rudeness of our neighbours. Do you feel like we’re forcing ourselves to live in a way that is not really natural to us? We’ve been sold a dream (like the American dream) that is actually more similar to a nightmare?
No! I think there is a certain narrative that is very popular and that makes you feel guilty for not embracing nature. But there’s something extremely natural in living in communities. It’s in our nature to want to bond and find company, and cities are the culmination of that. But it’s also a bit too dense and fast paced. I guess total isolation or total density are both not ideal. A more balanced lifestyle would be my dream. Social media will push every opinion to an extreme. So the city would be painted as either REALLY bad or REALLY good. It's a bit of both in my opinion.
You’re currently based in Paris. I’m seeing many videos about how the city is becoming more expensive due to the Olympics – most businesses raising their prices, including the public transport, which is a shame. How are you living that situation personally?
I don't think it’s ideal… I was seeing the Olympics in a certain way because of its costs, but given how war-mongering the world has become, I can now also appreciate the ‘togetherness’ promoted by the event. The friendly competition between countries sounds like a dreamy way to solve issues when you read the morning news.
Because of your work, you’ve travelled to many places. Any cities, countries, or natural environments you still have on your bucket list?
I’d want to see it all! But travelling is making me feel very guilty these days, so I try to limit it to work and feel grateful and can see the cultures I see and meet people. But I’m equally aware that something drastic needs to change for us to keep our world livable. It’s not a simple equation.