Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

James and John Rees Explore Individuality and Common Roots Through Art

John (left) and James Rees at their exhibition “Born Into This” at the Utah Valley University Museum of Art at Lakemount. Image courtesy of the artists.

Many siblings see their artwork hanging side by side, but that’s usually on their parents’ fridge. For James and John Rees, it’s at the Utah Valley University Museum of Art.

Born Into This is a small show featuring recent works by James and John. Rather than centering around an overarching theme or subject within the art, the exhibition revolves around a fascinating question for the brothers and for all artists in a tight-knit community with many shared teachers and experiences: What part of your art is really you? What can be attributed to random circumstance or specific training and what is the result of an artist’s individuality and unique personality? Can artists who share so much in common create something wholly original? Evidently, yes.

John and James (Jamie to his brother) are only a year and a half apart. They were raised in Provo, in the same house and often the same room, and both went to BYU to study art. They had supportive parents who encouraged them to explore every kind of art and music. Their father, a writer, entertained them during church with drawings in a sketchbook, and he paid them to take photographs for his articles, which they developed in a bathroom their family had converted into a darkroom.

Their mother was their biggest fan and among the first to push them to take their art seriously. She secretly submitted James’ work to an advanced art class where he found his people and his calling. She heavily encouraged John to enter his charcoal drawings in a youth art competition, which he won, leading to more exhibitions and opportunities.

At times, James and John’s parents tried to convince their sons to do something with a little more job security, but it was too little too late. They’d raised their sons to be artists.

A gallery room with various artworks. On the left wall, framed paintings of birds and abstract works are displayed. A large abstract painting with pink, green, and black tones hangs on the central wall.

John Rees’ large abstract painting on canvas is surrounded by several works by his brother James at the UVU Museum of Art at Lakemount.

Since leaving home, the brothers have developed unique artistic identities based on their distinct individual experiences and personalities. Unless you know either brother personally, you likely won’t be familiar with what those are exactly, and the museum doesn’t do much to clear it up. A brief introduction to the exhibit makes sure you know that they’re brothers with a shared background, but little else. The art is left to speak for itself.

Thankfully, it speaks loudly. The first works you see upon entering the exhibition immediately outline each brother’s skills, interests and personalities. For James, an award-winning artist and educator, this is a selection of monotypes from his The Weight We Carry series, and for John, a commercial photographer, it’s the product of his latest artistic experiments.

The Weight We Carry has been a years-long project for James. He began working on the series as a way to process challenges for himself and his family, and has created dozens of unique prints as he’s worked through those difficulties. The prints are monotypes, singular and impossible to replicate from scratch. Each seems to represent a distinct thought. Many of the prints show homes and heads holding up heavy rocks, as if carrying the weight of the world.

Abstract artwork featuring a large brown shape at the top with a black vertical line running through the middle. The lower part of the piece has dark, indistinct shapes on a light background.

James Rees, “Binding Weight”

The monotypes demonstrate a fine mix of chaos and control. There’s a degree of unpredictability to the works because of the way the ink is placed on and then pressed into each individual page. Dozens of the monotypes feature the same colors—red, blue, yellow, green—but the colors never combine the same way twice. It brings to mind the way so many of the challenges each of us face may have similar components—an unexpected diagnosis, a devastating loss, an unbearable grief—but come together in such a way that no two burdens are exactly the same.

The drawings layer over the colors and respond to the unique patterns the mixture of reds and blues and yellows have been allowed to create. A swath of light blue becomes an ocean. A rectangle of red becomes a roof. Carefully structured patterns emerge from the deliberately unstructured background. Like many challenges in life, the meaning follows the mess. Like many of James’ works in this exhibition, the monotypes demonstrate degrees of both chaos and control. They speak to an artistic personality that is simultaneously free-thinking and orderly, flexible and appreciative of the rules.

John doesn’t like any rules. Of course, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t know them. He has a successful professional career as a commercial photographer and creates campaigns for the likes of Nike, Apple and Starbucks. Obviously, this requires him to temper his creativity by paying close attention to the specific parameters of each job. He has to make something that surprises and delights the audience but conveys the precise message his client wants to send.

When John makes art purely for himself, he lets go of all expectations and exact messages. He takes risks in experimenting with new techniques, mediums, and styles. Lately, he’s been exploring abstract expressionism in photography and painting. One of his recent artistic experiments, which is on display in this exhibition, goes as follows: John drops objects onto ice or water and spray paints over them, then photographs them as the water moves and the ice melts. The result is a striking image of a fleeting moment in time before the water tension breaks or the spray paint drips a millimeter more. The color is vibrant, the texture is rich, the energy is undeniable.

Abstract artwork with a textured surface, featuring white and various shades of blue and purple. Small floral elements are scattered across the piece.

John Rees, “Beethoven’s Freize,” 2020

Three abstract paintings displayed on a gallery wall. The left and right paintings are chaotic and colorful with a mix of dark and light tones, while the central painting features a blue skull on a yellow background.

James Rees’ “Mortality,” (center), flanked by “Beginning to Melt” (left) and “My Mother’s Rose Garden (right) by John Rees

Similar textures and colors can be seen in John’s large scale paintings where he works seemingly random strokes on to unstretched and unprimed canvas. Underneath the chaos is an instinct. In his artwork, John intuitively finds just the right random patterns that make a compelling piece, but he doesn’t force them into being anything other than what they are. Some of his works are made in response to events in his life—the passing of his father in “Poppies” and the passing of his mother in “My Mother’s Rose Garden”—but there is little in the way of superimposed structure and symbolic meaning. Sometimes color is just color. Paint is just paint. Grief is just grief. A moment is just a moment. And that’s beautiful, too.

An early plan for the exhibition placed all of James’ work on one wall and all of John’s on another. The two walls would face each other, as if the exhibition were a competition or confrontation. But that’s not what this is. Born Into This is a collaboration between two brothers, two artists, and two equals. The walls alternate with each brother’s work

It’s a celebration of what happens when parents let their children explore and support them in doing the thing they love. It’s a reminder that no artist exists in a vacuum where they can claim their works are free from any influence and wholly their own.

After all, in James’ works, there’s a hint of John: the singularity, the unexpected, the touch of chaos. And in John’s works, there’s a hint of James: the color, the rhythm, the honesty. Perhaps the only way to fully see one is to see the other, too.

Two large abstract paintings with blue and white tones displayed on a gallery wall. Smaller framed artworks are seen on the left and right walls.

Two of John Rees’ large scale paintings dominate this wall in the UVU exhibit.


Born Into This: The Art of James and John Rees, Utah Valley University Museum of Art, Orem, through Sept. 21

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