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The following information, written by Karen Smith, is titled "A Walk in the World of Jia Aili", and was published online from NY ARTS, September-October, 2007.
In an age when Chinese art appears to be taking the world by storm and, given the ever-increasing population of China, one might assume that this is being done by a veritable horde of artists, but it might be surprising to some to find out that the actual number of Chinese artists is quite small. In spite of the fact that the occupation of an “artist” is now acknowledged as a respectable profession within present-day Chinese society, and one that is not without its financial rewards, the quantity of gifted young artists is still growing at a slow and somewhat disappointing rate, especially as compared to the annual volume of art school graduates. That Jia Aili is also an extraordinary talent makes him part of an even smaller elite of promising emerging artists.
First impressions of artist Jia Aili suggest a self-effacing and even bashful nature. The comments he volunteers about the content and approach brought to his paintings are disjointed, deliberately evasive, vague and, until a discussion wins his confidence, the gloss of polite diffidence is hard to penetrate. But when a breakthrough occurs, Jia Aili’s mind is revealed to be as active as the air in his paintings is still. Initially, this makes the artist rather hard to reconcile with his art, but not for long, and especially when one considers his recent frenetic experimentations with brush marks and colour. Breakthrough achieved.
The first thing one discovers in meeting the artist and in viewing his works is that, whilst most artists would consider themselves conscientious in their approach to creating art, Jia Aili is acutely so. His devotion is disarming in this contemporary age of “smart concepts” and creeping trends toward art as a visual punch line. The passionate force of his engagement feels like a throwback to a now-foreign era, that of the Moderns, when, as inferred by the West’s prodigiously romanticised version of art history, art was all about personal passions and emotional struggles. And, for those geniuses amongst the broader mêlée, a life condemned to being misunderstood, mocked, outcast even, and certainly not lauded as the art celebrities of today. Jia Aili is thus something of a conundrum: he makes art of the present in terms of the sensibilities with which he imbues it as well as the issues he tackles, and yet he does so by means that are wholly familiar—in terms of how oil paint is brought to canvas and how a composition is structured.
Both Jia Aili’s handling of pictorial space and the application of the paint itself invoke the landmass that characterises the Northeast region (the three provinces of Heilongjiang, Jilin and Liaoning, which are commonly referred to as Dongbei) and the life of the people it supports. One might even point to similar rural and urban settings in the works of other Northeast artists such as Li Dafang and Hai Bo as reference points. Similarly, one cannot ignore the rigorous training he received at Lu Xun Academy, the third or fourth most important in China after the Central Academy in Beijing, China National Academy in Hangzhou, and Sichuan Academy in Chongqing, which has particularly strong and long-held ties to the school of Socialist Realism (as adopted in China from the new Soviet era in the early 50s) and even today maintains an on-going programme of exchange with academies in Russia. This is only of note here—for Jia Aili’s work is far from owning any relation to this school—because of the artist’s personal inclinations towards epic, tragic drama, emotive poetry and his willing embrace of mental and physical struggle as he wrestles with the raison d’être for his art and a perfect means of expression. But ever as he voices fears that his paintings might be misunderstood, he is clearly not ready to cede an inch of the aesthetic ground he is cultivating.
One might presume his self-struggle to be driven by the energy of youthful aspirations as well as a pure regard for idealism that is the privilege of the young. Both are true, and in the context of Jia Aili’s work, the series of paintings he has created for this first solo exhibition in particular, one might admonish him to worry less for has clearly already found a style and a sensibility that have set him on a propitious path. Instinctively he knows this, yet fear of complacency will not let him admit it. Perversely then, he is discomfited by the natural sensation of pleasure that accompanies such early achievements. This brings us back to this artist’s perennial sense of struggle. It is not, however, in vain: he craftily presses the torturous, consuming emotions that monopolize him into the service of his art. In short, he transforms negative emotions into a positive resource in the way that Dostoyevsky turned depression to his literary advantage, and, to give a more example, British comedy writer, and self-professed manic-depressive, Stephen Fry transforms black moods into a rich, dark humour. This kind of justifiable opportunity to indulge the self is all too fleeting. The passage of time inevitably alters a person’s perspective according to the experience it confers.
En route to Jia Aili’s studio on a grey February day, as he prepares for the exhibition, he drives at a painfully slow speed. His explanation infers that he was more reckless when he first took to the wheel, just a few months before, but that experience has given his reason to be cautious. This metaphor for human existence is an unsought yet inescapable obstacle to any artist’s progress. To create art day after day, teaches the practitioner invaluable lessons about materials, form, and process. The more one does, and the more experience is accrued, the more the need to experiment becomes diminished as instinct takes over. Then there is the impact of the words of critics or of even the least influential commentator who has made a disparaging remark, and that plague the artist’s mental state as they make ready to embark upon a new artwork. Life teaches all of us to be wary, and entreats us not to repeat mistakes: once bitten we are all twice shy. Youth, happily, rarely thinks before it acts. Understanding this, Jia Aili keeps faith with his intuition, and heeds the voice of conscience that cautions him never to compromise, nor to lose sight of the value of immediacy of experience, no matter how painful that experience might be.
The paintings then can be said to represent an attitude of mind. Jia Aili does not seek to invoke a theory, or deconstruct an aspect of the socio-political climate as many contemporary Chinese painters have done, and which was a particular trend in the late 1980s. Times have changed. The post-Generation X generation prefers a disinterested relationship with social politics, but this is also the era of the ‘self’, at least of self-interest, out of which a new social position emerges from the individual perspectives of these artists. Jia Aili was born in 1979. This was the year that the one-child policy was introduced, which denied him any siblings. He is also categorised as a member of China’s post-Mao generation, born into a modernising world, which would come to bear little relation to the society and social conditions of the previous eras in which his parents grew up, and during which the foundations of their working lives were laid. This, too, made a significant contribution to Jia Aili’s outlook, though it would be wrong to imagine him as one of the growing legion of ‘little Chinese emperors’, as western journalists have dubbed the somewhat spoilt generations of single children.
Jia Aili was born into a humble family, to hard-working, modest parents: simple folk of the type whose trials and tribulations often get taken as the fabric from which tragic literary epics are woven. His conventional childhood passed in the small town of Dandong, on the banks of the Yalu River that separates China from North Korea, is the opposite of his life today in the burgeoning urban sprawl of Shenyang. As little as ten years ago this city had yet to experience any serious scale of redevelopment. Shenyang experienced massive layoffs amongst its workforce from the late 1980s through the 1990s as the doors of local steel plants and heavy industry factories closed. This had a devastating effect upon the local economy. It is thus astonishing today to find parts of its centre to be almost unrecognisable, not least with the addition of shop signs for luxury European brands. Far from delighting in this phenomenon, Jia Aili finds the pace of change, and the speed of daily life it is encouraging, too fast and hard to be alluring; too gritty to be thrilling. This “ordinary boy with his ordinary background” describes himself as being “too innocent to nurture the navigational skills required to ride out the storm of change”. Jia Aili is innocent almost to the point of being naïve, but that’s the advantage he owns: a youthful wonderment at the world mixed with a healthy scepticism and, thus far, the will to believe in ideals.
Naturally, daily life challenges this position every single day, even for this introvert who spends most of his time locked away in his studio. Hence the sense of struggle, and the reason why one can say that Jia Aili’s chosen content rather chooses itself, as he labours to achieve balance in a world in turmoil that, in turn, makes turmoil of the self.
Whilst personal experience feeds his work, Jia Aili’s approach to making art is not about using paint to retell a real life event, or to reconstruct a dramatic incident he has experienced: not to recreate the specific circumstances of a personal situation for the benefit of the audience. Instead, through the paintings, he posits a scenario that is best described as narrating the intimate nuances of a private mood, and one which he believes should be intelligible to all people. Jia Aili wants viewers to feel the anguish and isolation that engulfs his painted world: at least to step out of their worlds for a moment and experience his. This desire accounts for the enormous scale deemed necessary for the paintings, which ultimately draws viewers close to the solitary soul that Jia Aili inserts in the vast landmasses that set the stage for his synoptic psychological dramas. His art, then, is about a human condition, which is why the images or scenes depicted are not specific to China, nor especially to the era, although the changing nature of daily life in China, and individual experience in this rapidly modernising society acts as a backdrop to Jia Aili’s awareness of human frailty, vulnerability, and the need to be mindful of one’s surroundings.
It is being alert to his own environment that makes Jia Aili by inclination a loner, something he has in common with many artists from the Northeast. Many artists from Shenyang speak of the cold ambience of the social landscape, and the tensions of living amongst people characterised as brut, blunt, and tough. Social interaction tends to be minimal outside of tight-knit family units or bands of close friends. Even if this were not the case, one senses that Jia Aili does not have time for convivial distractions. His working hours are those of the age—from late afternoon to the small hours of the following morning—but they also reflect his predilection for solitude, and for long periods at a time too, as he frequently works more than twelve hours a day. This, he suggests is a level of intensity and endurance demanded by the paintings—even if he can’t always sustain his level of exertion—for although he is thoroughly schooled in the techniques of mixing colour and applying paint to canvas in a manner that achieves a measure of anatomical accuracy and convincing perspective, these are the staple formula of every academy graduate. For Jia Aili, these are now the very constraints he seeks to move beyond.
As referenced, Jia Aili’s preferred scale for presenting his visions habitually approaches the monumental, and usually requires several large panels to satisfy his needs, making a single painting five, six, or even more metres in width. These dimensions necessarily extend the time and effort required to complete each individual composition. During these protracted periods of time, the artist’s meditative activities do not default to pause mode—though at times he wishes it were possible to do so—no matter how intensely he is absorbed in the act of painting, or the emotion he wishes to imbue it with. This is apt to engender another type of obstacle to completing the work—mental, as well as physical exhaustion. Many painting get worked fifty per cent and then are left abandoned. But it is not the amount of labour involved, nor a lack of stamina, which is the cause. Jia Aili explains that once an idea is developed and becomes fully formed in his mind, the act of painting is often, inevitably, reduced to a process of illustrating the thought, even though he wills it to be otherwise.
In the early stages of giving form to an emotional impulse or state, Jia Aili frequently maps out the moods on paper in broad strokes and roughed in patches of colour—usually contrasting tones of a single or extremely limited variation of hue. The resulting sketches are a visual abstract of ‘the big idea’, and created on impulse with the freedom of knowing that the gesture is of little enduring significance, they often evolve into extraordinarily succinct and powerful examples of the atmosphere and emotional states Jia Aili seeks to express. The great expanse of the major canvases denies such directness, in addition to which Jia Aili’s penchant for detail is apt to overwhelm his mental state, because it shifts the focus to individual forms, textures, and the balance and contrast between tones and colour. This focus then becomes an unintended distraction. The result is that, at best, Jia Aili finds himself losing concentration, whilst at worst, he feels his interest in a composition drain away, at which point the painting is usually abandoned until the impulse or mood returns.
There are times when the work goes faster, and this is reflected in the final paintings. At others, Jia Aili can spend weeks, months even, on individual compositions, and not necessarily just the large ones, that utterly frustrate him with their progress. The minute nuances involved in the placing of a figure, the details of a posture, even the exact position of a limb, can drive him to distraction. His desire is to transcend the pictorial mechanisms of straightforward, conventional reality, to portray landscapes of the mind, with just enough of a surreal ambience to jog the viewing habits of his audience off their accustomed track, forcing them to journey along a new, unfamiliar path. But against the photo-realist execution of certain elements of nature used to determine the landscape—tendrils of dried plant life, particles of rock and random detritus that sit on the surface of the parched earth, or equally, the engulfing depths of lakes filled with dark, opaque viridian waters, from which virulent tangles of water lilies arise, and the impenetrable forest of trees that divide these lakes from the outside world—Jia Aili sets himself a considerable challenge in persuading the viewer that these environments are not a traceable locale in the real world, but a realm of his imagining. This sense of this conflict in turning the obvious into something ‘other’ vibrates in the paintings, laconic but persistent, like the fear that washes over anyone who suddenly finds themselves totally alone in the middle of nowhere, and with nothing familiar in sight. Here, the triptych is a case in point, although not perhaps as obvious as the hostile atmosphere pervading the ‘desert’ scapes.
At this point in time, several months prior to exhibition, to a casual viewer may perceive the three water lily paintings to be finished, but for Jia Aili, they remained unresolved. Visually, they were already quite perfect, but in the artist’s mind, the gaping chasm between painterly perfection and his idea of perfect expression absolutely had to be closed if the series was to have any hope of deserving such praise. Meanwhile, he could point to other works—that were executed with incredible speed. All, as Jia Aili says, depends upon the mood of the moment as he faces a canvas and starts work.
Jia Aili points to that was worked up in 45 minutes. It remains unfinished but is competent and resolved even so. The overall tone is different to the palette he has established in his first year out of the academy: a sand yellow base that is at times milky grey like insipid wheat porridge. The composition shows a man standing in a dank architectural space staring distractedly at a pile of rubbish by his feet. The figure is a life model from the academy, the setting one in which Jia Aili placed him to explore a personal vision, before class began. The emotion that resonates in the work relates to the awkwardness exhibited by students arriving for class, being confronted by their life model plucked from the usual studio environment. This was compounded by just how vulnerable and exposed Jia Aili sensed the model to be in this ‘unnatural’ environment. Furthermore, the man stands in front of a fire door, its function as a safety measure thwarted because it is always locked, so there’s no escape. Of course, this is not necessarily apparent to the audience, but for Jia Aili is a metaphor for human existence in the contemporary world—at least, within the society he knows.
All this august perplexity that pours from this artist springs from a natural need to understand the self. Jia Aili likes to dwell on eternal questions in the vein that Gauguin presented in the title of his famous painting Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?, no unreasonable for a Chinese oil painter caught between inherent cultural sensibilities that repeatedly extol five thousand years of unbroken heritage, and the predominantly western-style approach to the technical training he received courtesy of the academy. Such a situation inalienably encourages confusion about what is ‘right’ or ‘best’: especially reconciling the modern-day reverence for drawing skills honed through observing reality and adhering to rational scientific principles that are entirely absent from Chinese aesthetics. In one sense, Jia Aili’s approach to oil painting references one element of Chinese ink painting (also referred to with the more current term Chinese brush painting), for here, one finds a whole-hearted emphasis upon the emotional state of the artist embarking upon a painting, but with the accent on years of careful cultivation of the mind and spirit so as to control it, not to be controlled by it as Jia Aili allows himself to be. As a young teenager, he was tutored by a brush painter, a one-on-one learning experience that he recalls as being intense. His enduring impression of the creative process, as per the traditional practice of ink painting, was primarily of the solitude and peace ink artists preferred, as well as the distance from the thick of society that these cultivated men were encouraged to maintain in order to be able to unleash the spirit, the mind, and the physical energy necessary for giving oneself over to a creative impulse without impediment. Jia Aili interprets this as invoking the will, vision, and ability to express through the act of painting the core fibre of emotions that are experienced in the depths of one’s being, and which mere words neutralise, dilute, and desensitise. His early training further alerted Jia Aili to the special attributes of Chinese (eastern) aesthetic values: especial nuances that gained particular emphasis when he enrolled as a student in the very (western) realism-rooted oil painting department at Lu Xun Academy, for they were so clearly at odds with those applied in the West. More perplexing still, that today, these once-revered values are almost entirely absent from the contemporary social consciousness.
When we turn back to look at Jia Aili’s paintings, it is clear that the concept of emotion he brings to his art and invokes in the paintings has little to do with the emotion associated with ink painting. He does not favour flights of joyful fancy, or pay homage to nature alone, or celebrate beauty, love, or the simple pleasures of the physical world. The emotions he draws upon are much closer to those that pour forth from the prose of Dostoyevsky, or of Tolstoy, and which speak of tragedy and struggle: the tragedy of struggling, on and on against the odds. These are writers that sprang to mind when listening to the artist talk in his studio about the inspiration that drives his art. It seemed natural to assume this literary influence to be somehow a part of his student experience as Lu Xun Academy, but this proved presumptuous.
The literary connection was forged long before the artist entered the academy, for his father is a writer. In his childhood, ‘home’ was filled with volumes of Russian literature, not just those authored by Soviet writers whose works were politically acceptable, but earlier masters of the great, sorrowful epics and poetic laments that are so characteristic of the Russian ‘pen’. These Jia Aili read, as well as works from other nations—Balzac was a favourite. Indirectly, his reading of ‘drama’ encouraged a deliberate, cogent emphasis upon the canvas as a stage, the painting as a scene across which an invented narrative unfolds. We accept that they are always truncated, without beginning or end. Even for the artist, these dramas are perceived, and conceived, as a single, pivotal moment in a sequence of emotions that floods the depths of one’s—his—being. For the audience then, the story has to be imagined, woven together from the clues Jia Aili presents in the painting, and that are often as subtle as an equation of space and proportion, the relationship between a vast open plain of nothingness and the solitary figure it engulfs, whose identity is eternally obscured by the mask strapped over his head, covering his face. Thus we understand that even if the space around him were to be crowded with humanity, he would still be cut off from it. The mask is a metaphoric measure of the difficulties and complexities of communicating directly, and of one’s voice, or words, being heard clearly. Equally, Jia Aili points to how our emotions are frequently locked away inside, unable to escape, and invisible to even the closest of friends. The mask is an obvious physical barrier and purveyor of distortion. It parodies our deft ability to gloss over the way in which experience, education, and prejudices, impede one’s ability to hear without selectively absorbing what passes by our ears. That is the enigma that casts a spell over all the paintings.
This is the insidious element of complacency that Jia Aili so fears. In his words: “Today life is all about making do. If you feel you ought to get mad at anything, to question something, or to point out a problem, people around get embarrassed and change the subject. When I loose my temper, my friends ask me, ‘Why waste your energy on getting angry? There are not things you can control…’ But shouldn’t we be able to have control over what we do, even eat or wear, and how those things are presented to us?”
That hypothesis is worth remembering when perusing Jia Aili’s works. These are best explored in the context of the artist’s studio, a place that was chosen for the atmosphere in which it is steeped, and which is of itself the very embodiment of the domain in which Jia Aili, the artist, is aesthetically embroiled.
The building sits on a long, almost deserted street, the space one of an anonymous row of commercial prefab lock-ups that were certainly not constructed with an artistic purpose in mind. The entrance is masked by a clattering aluminium door that rolls up to let the artist in and, when rolled back down, effectively divides him from the world outside. Inside, the ceilings are high, which allows ample room for the looming expanse of the canvases resting against the walls, and creates a haze of ambient light, which sets the tone for the turgid luminosity that floods the paintings.
Immediately inside the entrance, balanced on an easel is a small painting typical of Jia Aili’s oeuvre. It shows a masked man seated alone in a desolate landscape. His posture places him in quarter profile to the viewer, who intuitively tries to follow his gaze, only to discover it looks to a point that is concealed from view, running beyond the frame of the picture plane to a point along the far, low horizon that wavers testily beneath the broad expanse of big sky. It is an exquisitely detailed work, but one comes to the details later, having first succumbed to the spooky austerity of the environment, and felt the chill of the isolation that washes over the figure that Jia Aili condemns to this morbid realm. Each of these elements combines to a prescription—which should not be understood to mean a formula—to which he returns again and again, and will no doubt continue on indefinitely until he decides the result is just right. In discussing the palette to which he repeatedly returns, Jia Aili explains that his aim is to create landscapes the colour of hospital issue clothing worn by patients in psychiatric wards, which gives an idea of the kind of challenge he sets himself.
It is no surprise to discover nearby a large two-panel work, which was the subject of a painting created on a similarly immense scale in 2006. A solitary man stands gazing at the ‘accident’, and, as with all Jia Aili’s figures, the nature of his expression abstruse. This time though, the former prototype has been thoroughly transformed by the introduction of deliberately exaggerated brush marks that are not usually a marked feature of his approach. It is a style that suggests echoes of recent work created by the firmly established painter Zeng Fanzhi on the theme of landscapes. Jia Aili is naturally perplexed at the comparison, having never seen an actual landscape painting by Zeng Fanzhi, but those who have will find common elements colliding here, specifically in the way that paint, brush, and pigment are deployed. The obvious parallel between elder virtuoso and emerging star is in the frenzied shaping of the landscape, a visual construct that employs layer upon layer of erratic, restless lines that jerk first this way, then that, as if trying to escape the canvas. Jia Aili affirms the deliberate contrivance of this ploy in his use of the character “·è”, meaning crazy, as a substitute for “·ç” in the word for landscape “·ç¾°” (both are pronounced ‘feng’) by which this, and other similar paintings are titled. Again, to this end, emphasis is given to the darker lines, which lend a brooding quality to the main thrust of the activity. The sky above this kaleidoscopic spin of lines is a characteristic expanse of cold, placid blue with a strong undertone of grey as if a storm is approaching.
Similar to the smaller painting on the easel, this large diptych is also entirely emotive. Of course here, this explosion of emotion and the motion of the strokes, which dance and shoot uncoordinated and chaotic in every direction, imply both an involuntary rampage as if the ‘artist’ is attempting to flee the stony silence and terrible stasis of the boundless planes, and a discharge of pent-up, internal ‘Æø’ (breath of life) that can no longer be contained. As a final touch, a small smear of pinkish red leaps out of the space with electrifying potency on the left-hand side of the painting.
It is all compelling stuff, if rather hard on the spirit at times. Now we begin to understand why Jia Aili is exhausted by paintings that he himself creates, and why such a high proportion of the works are currently unfinished. On the opposite side of the studio is another monumental three-panel painting, measuring three metres by six. It is clearly a prototype for the ‘crazy’ landscape just described. A further unfinished work in the vein of seems to have been left half done for the sole purpose of having the viewer complete it themselves, mentally, in the mind’s eye. Glancing round the studio, it is clear that Jia Aili has given us myriad examples of plausible solutions. Within the composition, the eye is drawn to the familiar stone base, which is the only tangible object in sight. It is an unadorned block of stone that might represent an epitaph, a memorial, or a lopped off plinth—here painted so well that we forget about what might be built upon it, or what has been stolen away. The ground is the same, too, but where at this point in the process the space remains devoid of human life, the expanse of earth and sky feel less oppressive, or obdurate that they appears in other works. Barely formed, this painting is quite breathtaking, if for no other reason than the promise wrapped up in its as yet untapped potential to be a great masterpiece. There’s something so alluring about the freedom of the lines and strokes, of the swathes of paint that point to a painting waiting to be realised, the shape of which no one, not even the artist, can predict for sure.
Scattered around the lower studio are various paper works, which also offer hints of what will at some stage appear on canvas. These are at times very small and very sketchy, which is part of their appeal, for the hand of the artist seems completely unselfconscious. In talking of his attempts to channel his instinct, Jia Aili points to a first ‘installation’ painting, part hanging and part leaning on the wall. The paint, a uniform and unappealing grey tone, has been washed over a series of surfaces and objects, which effectively blacks them out in a way, but when arranged together form an environment that Jia Aili feels represents his personal space as well as his mental state. There’s a wok, a scroll painting, a book, and a ‘blank‘ canvas. The pillow is the only object that displays with a recognisable image…the horizon and the detritus of an explosion or disturbance, all familiar motifs. “Paintings in themselves always lack something,” the artist explains. “This deconstruction of a single composition manages to evoke what I feel is often missing. It’s in the spaces in between, in the absence of what should be there, which is deliberately reworked as a space in which the viewer let the imagination wander.”
Moving upstairs to the second-floor studio is quite a shock as the aura is entirely transformed by a pervasive palette composed entirely of green: malachite, beryl, jade, forest, moss, and viridian. This is embodied on the large square format composition, which is built up of layer after layer of almost transparent washes of diluted oil paint, and that have been allowed to run and dribble in various directions. This process achieves a degree of luminosity that almost sets the work aglow. True, at first glance it might appear to have been left out in a shower of rain, but this rather enriches the surface, as with the surface of copper or bronze that acquires a marbling of verdigris as it oxidises under the elements. Next to this are the, and although these, too, focus on a mood of isolation, and are suffused with the danger of the unknown like the endless plains in other larger works, here it is density not open space that gives rise to the sense of unease. Each composition contains the usual solitary figure, but these differ in two ways. First they are all engaged in an incongruous activity—incongruous with the location and setting—and second are all, waist deep in the dark, impenetrable waters of what is assumed to be a lake. They each carry an object, linked to them for reasons that are not easily explained, but which doesn’t stop the figure being totally absorbed in them. Both the surrounding area and the water are thick with plant life. Jia Aili scowls at them, reminding us that these are examples of works over which he has laboured, “with which I have struggled” for an inordinate period of time, but which “still require work”. The surface of these paintings is glossy, rich, whilst that of the others on this floor is chalky. The mirror gloss of the patina makes one think of Narcissus gazing at his reflection in the surface or a pool, captivated with the self to the exclusion of all else. Here, one finds the first appearance of words scrawled on the canvas—an extract from the philosophical musings of Zhuang Zi that refers to the need for purity and remaining loyal to the essence of things.
That they are delicious paintings is superficially due to the colour scheme, though it doesn’t mean the figures inserted in these lush waterscapes are any less wounded, damaged, or impaired than those Jia Aili exiles to the desert. Here, he provides an opportunity to get a clearer look at the mask that perennially covers the figures features. Invoking the poet once again, Jia Aili gives him a reading assignment to which end he holds a book open in his hand like a poet strolling through a glade reciting verse. Thus masked, the figure is surely unable to read anything on a page before him. The mask further acts as a gag, if not silencing his voice then muffling all the words he might utter. Should one then interpret this series as being about the illusion thrown up by living in a modernising world, where freedoms are not always as abundant as the social veneer might suggest? “I never try to seek a concept for my work”, Jia Aili reiterates, and then changes the subject: “I’ll probably be done with the mask after this exhibition. I’m becoming more and more interested in machines. It’s incredible to think how everyone craved simple household appliances in the 1980s, and now today we have them, and have probably gone through two or three different models. Who could have predicted that such venerable objects would have such a short life span? Or that they would just get thrown away like this?”
As an illustration of his point, he directs our attention to more new works, which follow the experimentation with crazed strokes witnessed on the ground floor. The pictorial forms are consistent with Jia Aili’s usual repertoire: a figure apparently walking across the picture plane carrying an unidentifiable object, through what seems to be a dumping ground piled high with abandoned electrical appliances. A second work gives greater clarity to the object held. It is revealed to be a tube television set, which the modern world is rapidly using liquid crystal technology to render obsolete. But why does he carry a television set specifically? “Because I hate TV,” replies Jia Aili. “Hate…because actually I love watching it! The problem is the power of its appeal, and the real damage that watching it inflicts upon the audience. It diminishes the ability to think, can totally control the mental state, and shape people’s attitudes.” He makes a second play of words here to illustrate the conundrum: this time he substitutes “Óé” in “ÀÖ” (meaning entertainment with “ÓÞ” meaning stupid (both pronounced yu).
All of this takes place in the middle of a muddy grey explosion of lacerating strokes zigzagging across the surface in disoriented fashion. Here, then are the machines to which he refers: the debris of the modern age. So-called high technology now abandoned to rust, useless, it’s working life spent.
In all three such works, the chalky opacity of lines completely alters the finished result. They look less like the style we associate with Jia Aili, and like that we recognised from Julian Schnabel. Certainly even does not have a texture quite like this. Even if it is not yet clear if ‘new’ is really good, the switch between style and texture definitely allows Jia Aili to test out boundaries and prevent himself from slipping into a rut.
“Painting doesn’t always satisfy me. I’m trying to find better ways to be clearer about what I seek to express. A lot happens in the process of painting that is impossible to predict. At times I deliberately try to produce a distinctly different style: styles that are so different the viewer might assume the paintings were created by different people. But that doesn’t mean I don’t make each work the best it can possibly be.”
A further attempt to be different involves the element of installation, as mentioned with the ‘installation’ painting. In the exhibition, keen to take greater control of the physical space in which the paintings would be displayed, Jia Aili adopted a different approach initially conceived to be a barrier erected between the viewer and the work, through which the audience would be forced to view the work, adjusting both the body and the eye in order to do so. Other thoughts flirted with graffiti, which Jia Aili compares favourably to contemporary painting—in terms of how much graffiti has struck him as representing true, heartfelt expression, not always apparent in art.
Just when we feel the tour is almost over, Jia Aili draws out other works, one being a beautiful water lily painting. “Beautiful?” It’s not a word he deals in. “I can’t say that I have ever seen ‘beauty’ in a pure and unadulterated form, but I do know what is not beautiful.”
Back down on the ground floor, his graduation works present themselves for attention. These are four tall, narrow panels that each portray a single figure in various postures and engaged in a range of puzzling activities. They are painted well, but are distinctly conservative as compared with the post-academy works. But still, looking back at these with fresh eyes, what amazing vision of the artist motivated the huge vast pile up of corpses that formed his main graduation composition. What was he thinking? It is still not finished and it is doubtful that it ever will be. But as the artist points out, quoting the essence of the Buddhist ideal that one should always hope to see a flower in bud not in full bloom, the crescent moon but not a full one, because there can be no greater comfort or joy in life than in the certain knowledge that the best is yet to come.
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