Intelligent Design 

The art of PJ Dean

Originality is becoming as scarce as crude oil. In the realm of visual art, everything has been "done," from cubist perspectives to sublime landscapes to fecal smears on canvas, making it even more impressive that local artist PJ Dean has a style he can call his own.

Hunching over 4-by-4 sheets of paper on his apartment floor, Dean listens to movies under a hot white light and uses Prismacolor pencil, graphite pen, metallic powder pigment and gouache to layer on tiny, textured images. Many of his pieces pay homage to animal forms, whether the farcical caricatures of his Cirques des Caprices series or the sepia, tapestry-like creature portraits in a new, unnamed collection.

Merely as line drawings, they would be impressive due to Dean's mechanical precision and ability to capture essence in one frame, but he doesn't stop there--the figures in the foreground share the spotlight with lush backgrounds, patterns within patterns that add interest, dimension and movement to already graceful designs. No two are exactly alike. Flames, dots, diamonds, spheres, lashes, bars, swirls and Greek symbols for infinite look as organic as feathered wings, shafts of light or the occasional, curling mustache.

At first glance, you might notice blocks of pattern in the larger composition, but the beauty of Dean's work is in the details--the painstaking, whimsical details that cover 99 percent of the surface area and elevate what could be called "wildlife art" to something engaging and modern. In fact, Dean takes offense to being labeled as such, and it doesn't take any training to see that his work wouldn't fit in with the watercolors of elk in mountain meadows so common to Idaho galleries.

"They're not 'wildlife art,' they're studies in pattern that just happen to have animals in the image. I don't think of chickens and rabbits as being 'wild' anyway," Dean said.

Before he was ever noteworthy enough to approach galleries and endure their classifications, Dean was an art student at Boise State. He always did well but struggled to follow one professor's instructions to let his arm swing across the canvas with abstract, immediate passion.

"He was always telling me to use my whole arm, my whole body, but I usually ended up right on top of the canvas painting little tiny areas at a time, spoiling his teaching plans," Dean said. "I didn't really plan on any kind of design style; it developed out of patterns. I try to draw messy and free and loose and I can't--it's like a brain malfunction. I'm meticulous."

Despite natural and cultivated talent, Dean stopped making art for three years in order to frame it. He worked at Gallery 601, and having so many different pieces pass through his hands eventually drove him to create.

"A lot of learning and growing is just looking," he said. "Some of my layout and design ideas came from looking at stuff I was framing, limited edition prints by successful artists." Many of these were on the opposite end of the spectrum from Dean's edgy style, but he valued the same elements in them that he imbues in his own work--balance, contrast and texture.

Dean's impressive first show, Cirques des Caprices or Circus of Freaks, includes a snake in a top-hat, amphibian trapeze artists, fire-breathing penguins and a determined panda on a bicycle--all impossibly detailed from the whites of their eyes to the shadows cast on their unlikely poses. His other work shares this richness and expresses Dean's modest purpose.

"Maybe earlier on, I tried to put symbolism in my work, but I think it's kind of hokey. Most people don't take the time to sit around and analyze the piece. I don't think there's a hidden meaning in a guy eating a plate of spaghetti," he said, motioning to a print on his wall of an old stylized advertisement.

So Dean makes art for art's sake, for the simple cycle of creation, reflection and, hopefully, appreciation--though he claims not to be driven by profit.

"I don't really do pieces to sell them; they're kind of like my kids. I spend so much time with them and nurture them, and it's hard to give them away," he said. His latest offerings express this fatherly care as each animal was carefully researched and modeled before making its way onto his signature, patterned square. "I chose animals with naturally high contrast--pandas, puffins, zebras--then gathered up pictures and tried to find positions that I liked," Dean said. "It was a Mr. Potato Head kind of thing. I wanted them to look different with their arms and legs in positions they wouldn't normally be in."

The effect is stirring somehow. As your eyes move across the piece, changing angles play light and dark across layers painstakingly applied over many hours, and you begin to see the value of concentration and an inhumanly steady hand.

"I lie down with a Masonite board with all my supplies on it and just kind of hunch over. My face is five or six inches from the paper and I work for eight hours at a time," he said. Yet Dean does not call himself an artist. "Michelangelo and Da Vinci--they were artists. I don't come close to that, but I like the work and the people around me seem to like it."

Dean's work is being shown at the new J Crist gallery and can be perused and commissioned online at He hopes to someday show his work outside the state, if only to share the beautiful utility of his defining method--pattern.

"It gives the viewer something to keep looking at," he said, "and if they stop long enough to really look, that's enough for me."

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