Jia Aili is a graduate of the oil painting department of Lu Xun Academy of Fine Art in Shenyang - a city in China’s north-eastern province, Liaoning - and a recent graduate too - 2006 - which means he is a young artist. Surprising as it may seem in an age when Chinese art appears to be taking the world by storm, and, one assumes, given the population of China, that this is being done by a veritable horde of artists, the number is actually small. In spite of the fact that ‘artist’ is now acknowledged as a respectable profession within present-day Chinese society, and one that is not without its financial rewards, still , the quantity of gifted young artists is growing at a slow and somewhat disappointing rate, especially when compared against 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. Talent usually aligns itself with a distinctive character or, perhaps, is responsible for imbuing characer into the body it inhabits. It is a discernable quality in the person of Jia Aili, in the way he handles himself , as much sa his handing of any discussion of his work. First impressions suggest a self-effacing, bashful even, nature. The commects he volunteers about the content and approach brought to his paintings are disjointed,deliberately evasive and vague, and until a discussant 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 major paintings is still. This initially makes the artists rather hard to reconcile with his art, but not for long, especially when one considers the recent frenetic experimentations with brush mark and colour.
Breakthrough achieved, the first thing one discovers is that whilst most artists would probably 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 the creeping trend towards art a visual punch line given a pseudo-aesthetic form. 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 largely romanticised version of art history, art was all about personal passions and emotional struggle, and, for those genius’ amongst the broader melée, 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 very much of the present in terms of its sensibilities and the issues he seeks to tackle, anddoes so by means that are wholly familiar in terms of how oil paint is brought to canvas, and how the compositions are structured. Both Jia Aili’s handling of pictorial space, and the application of the paint itself invoke the aura of the landmass that characterizes the Northeast region (the three provinces of Heilongjiang, Jilin, Liaoning, which are commonly refered to as Dongbei ) and the life of the people it supports, to which end one might point to similar rural and urban settings in the works of other Northeast artists such as Li Dafang and Hai Bo.One can also not ignore the rigorous trainting 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 in the early 1950’s), 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—in terms of the artist’s personal inclinations towards epic, tragic drama, and 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 this 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, in particular the series of paintings he has created for this, his first solo exhibition, 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, yer 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 monopolise him into the service of his art. In short, he transforms negative emotions that monopolise 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 artists’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 achieving this, or by the tortured emotions that he says consume him, which are, as even he recognises, responsible for directing his insight and guiding his way forward. The positive aspects of this turgid strait are something he rightly seizes upon and should continue to indulge, for time alters all personal perspectives, thanks to the experience it fosters upon individuals. 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. The explanation he gives infers that he was more reckless when he first took to the wheel, just a few months previously, but that experience has given his reason to be cautious. This metaphor for human existence is also an unsought yet unescapable obstacle to any artist’s progress: creating art day after day, teaches the practitioner about materials, form, process. As in all areas of life, the more one does the more experience one accurues and the less one perdceives a need to experiment, to try. Furthermore, how many hear the words of critics or those of even the least influential commentator who unleashed a disparaging sentiment, ring in their ears as they make ready to embark upon a new artwork? Youth rarely thinks before it acts. Life teaches all of us to be weary: once bitten we are all twice shy. Knowing this, Jia Aili holds fast to intuition, and heed every atom of his being as it cautions him never to compromise, nor to lose sight of the value of immediacy of experience, no matter how painful, no matter how hard that expereince might be. But whilst it is true that personal experience feeds his work, Jia Aili’s approach to making art is not about using paint to retell a moment. He’s not asking the audience for sympathy. He wants viewers to feel the anguish, the isolation, to join the solitary soul he inserts in the vast ladnmasses he takes as the stage for his abstract psychological dramas for this reason, as can be seen in the most recent works, he has already begun to take paint off the two-dimensional picture plane, and begin to think about creating ‘painted’ physical environments into which those who encounter the work are, by virtue of simply approaching the work, forced to enter.
Jia Aili’s working hours are those of the age - from late afternoon to the small hours of the following morning - but they also reflect his his are also long, as he frequently works fourteen hours a day. This, he suggests is a degree of endurance demanded by the paintings, for although well-schooled in techniques that make mixing colour, applying paint to canvas in a manner that achieves a measure of anatomical accuracy and convincing perspective, these are staple forumula he seeks to move beyond. There are times when the work goes faster, and this is reflected in the final paintings. At others, weeks, months, can be spent on individual compositions that utterly frustrate him with their progress. The minute nuances invoked by 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 move beyond 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. Against the almost photo-realist execution of the natural elements that are used to determine the landscape - tendrils of dried plantlife, particles of rock and dust that sit on the surface of the parched earth, or equally the engulfing depths of lakes filled with dark, opaque viridian waters, the virulent tangle of waterlilies that arise from them and the impenetrable forest of trees that divide the lake from the outside world - Jia Aili sets himself an enormous challenge, which is the wellspring out of which the struggle he engages arises. The sense of this conflict in turning the obvious into something ‘other’ also emanates from the paintings, the ‘waterlily’ triptych being a case in point. At this point in time, several months prior to exhibition, to a casual viewer these three paintings could easily appear to be finished, but for Jia Aili remained unresolved. They were in one sense, already quite perfect, but in the artist’s mind, the gap be discerned between painterly perfection and his idea of perfect expression had to be closed if they were to have any hope of achieving this stae.
Jia Aili’s preferred scale for announcing his visions approaches the monumental, and usually requires several large panels to meet 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 work. During these protracted periods of time, the artist’s meditative activities are not put into 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 impart to it. This can evolve into another form of obstacle to completing the work—mental, physical exhaustion. But it’s not the only one: 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, he maps out moods on paper, in broad strokes and roughed in patches of colour—usually contrasting tones of a single, or extremely limited variation of hue. These sketches are like the visual abstract of ‘the big idea’, and where created on impulse, with the total freedom of experimenting, and no need to care about the final result, they actually end up being extraordinarily succinct and powerful examples of the atmosphere and emotional states Jia Aili seeks to express. The great expanse of the canvases deny such directness, and Jia Aili’s penchant for detail is apt to overwhelm his mental state, engendering a focus on individual forms, textures, and the balance and contrast of tones and colour, which evolve into an uninvited / uncircumnavigatable distraction. The result is that Jia Aili finds himself losing concentration at best, whilst at worst he feels his interest in a work drain away.
Meanwhile, other works—“Man by Rubbish”, the vertical crazy landscape with TV—are painted with incredible speed. All, as he says, depends upon the mood of the moment as he faces a canvas and starts work.
Jia Aili’s work is not conceptual in origin or orientation. His musings, and the subjects he takes as the focus of the compositions are so strongly tied to his emotional state at any one moment that he insists that his approach be described / defined as representing an attitude of mind. He does not seek to invoke a theory, or deconstruct an aspect of the socio-political climate as many contemporary Chinese painters elect to do, which was particularly a trend in the late 1980s. Jia Aili’s chosen content rather chooses itself, or perhaps more aptly, imposes itself upon his art. In short, the themes pivot around the individual struggle—namely the artist’s—to achieve balance in a world in turmoil that in turn makes turmoil of the self. This then is above 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 received awareness of human frailty, vulnerability, and the dangers of a clear presence of mind.
In common with many artists from the Northeast, Jia Aili is by inclination a loner. Other artists from Shenyang also describe the society of the northeast region as cool, the people characterised as brut, blunt, and tough. Social interaction retains a strong seam of the enduring cultural characteristics ascribed to people born of and tied to the northeastern provinces. Tight family units dominated by the men of the house, although the women too are known to give as good as they get.
For Jia Aili, although young, he’s possessed of an old, philosophical soul that cares as deeply about aesthetic problems, as it is given to dwelling upon them. In a world riven by material concerns engendered by the burgeoning economy, as living standards rise, as the proliferation of goods and products floods the halls of shopping plazas nationwide that are also proliferating at an extraordinary rate, the pressure to acquire the trappings of a ‘modern life’ is enormous. Equally, in cities like Shenyang which experienced massive layoffs in the 1990s as the doors of steel plants and heavy industry factories closed, the pressure to survive financially, is great too. Shenyang, similar to other secondary cities across China, has been undergoing a process of reinvention in recent years, and subject to a rush of redevelopment that is changing the urban landscape beyond all recognition. The advent of a buoyant art market and the government’s commitment to developing and supporting culture has given a further boost to the artists’ opportunities to achieve not just solvency but a life of comfort and style that was unimaginable for most independent career artists in the 1990s.
When Jia Aili graduated in 2006, he was one of the tiny minority of contemporary graduates whose talent and promise is rewarded with a place on the teaching faculty of their alma mata. In the 1980s and 1990s an enviable prestige, today it is less so. Independence is not such a daunting prospect, and freedom is now what most long time professors find enviable. Jia Aili was eager to embark upon his own path free of directives and the academic framework. Many of his peers chose to enrol for post-graduate studies. He believes this to indicate their lack of confidence in their ability, in their vision. “Further studies do not make better artists, in fact the academy environment itself has little to do with developing art. Being an artist is an attitude of mind.” By implication, one either has it or one doesn’t. “The biggest problem in the academy structure is that students are not encouraged to think for themselves. Nor to develop and pursue their own concerns. Academy’s focus on the formal aspects of painting, on technique. It’s like they are afraid of unleashing individuals’ ideas. So the message is “paint well”, although no one qualifies “well” in any other terms than conventional conservative ones. Today, quantity certainly ranks higher than quality. It’s very confusing for students because as a student you don’t really know what is “good”. The longer one stays in the system, the harder it is to arrive at a clear idea: not thinking weakens the ability to think.”
He adds: “It’s not as people might assume that the system actively controls one’s thoughts: it’s worse, because the way it’s set up, people never develop their own ideas in the first place.” Well, the submissive ones don’t, those who acquiesce to the system, let others think for them, saving themselves the trouble. People are like this everywhere, so even in China, when “thought control” was at its height, there was always a minority possessed of its own mind, and opinions. Jia Aili places himself in this category.
Early training was provided by a tutor whose medium was ink painting (also referred to with the more current term Chinese brush painting). The one-on-one tutorage was at the time intense, and the received impression of the creative process (which is especially particular to ink painting) of the solitude and peace, distance from the thick of society, required to unleash the spirit, mind, inspiration and energy necessary for giving oneself over to a creative impulse, capturing its very essence and giving it visual form. It also alerted Jia Aili to the special attributes of Chinese (eastern / oriental) aesthetic values—which he learned as a student in the very (western) realism-rooted oil painting department at Lu Xun Academy, which prides itself upon its long-time links and exchange programmes with Russian professors, were very different to those that apply in the West. He feels that these indigenous values are almost entirely absent today. The sensibility is not lost completely but seems to be dormant—against the tide of influences from the West through the last two and a half decades perhaps, but that ought to resurface as China grows stronger, and its cultural traditions and values achieve the same levels of confidence currently accruing to China’s economic prowess. Jia Aili describes this as 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.
This concept of emotion has little to do with depicting flights of joyful fancy, paying homage to beauty or celebrating nature, the human form, a symphony of colour, or even passionate love. The emotions in question are much closer to the prose of Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, of tragedy and struggle, the tragedy of struggling, on and on against the odds. Often in the knowledge that human nature in the case of the struggling artist is not always destined to triumph. These were writers that sprang to mind listening to Jia Aili talk; naturally assumed to be somehow a part of the Lu Xun Academy experience. But this was jumping the gun. The origin is found long before the artist enter the academy for his father was a writer, published, though achieving only a modest degree of fame. Jia Aili recalls the home of his childhood in the small provincial town of Dandong, that sits just across the Yalu River from North Korea, as filled with the tomes of not just those Soviet writers whose works were acceptable, but earlier masters of those great, sorrowful epics and poetic laments. These Jia Aili read, as well as works from other nations—Balzac, etc. It is an interesting point to introduce because in talking of his work, there is a deliberate, cogent emphasis upon the structure of the compositions as a stage, upon which a narrative unfolds, although the narrative is always abstract, without beginning or end for the audience, and even for the artist perceived and conceived as one of those pivotal moments in a sequence of emotions that flood the depths of one’s being. The explanation here, if one’s looking for a story to which the painted moment might belong, lies in the equation of space, the vast open plains of nothingness that engulf the solitary figure depicted. His identity is locked behind the mask strapped over this head, covering his face, and we understand that even if the space around him was 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. The mask is an obvious physical barrier and purveyor of distortion. Its very blatantness if the work points to our deft ability to gloss over the way in which received experience, education, and the prejudices we inevitably incur along the way, impede the ability to hear without distortion, or selective absorption of what passes by our ears.
Jia Aili was born in 1979. This was the year that the one-child policy was introduced, which rendered him an only child. 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 conditions of the previous eras in which his parents grew up and during which the foundations of their working and family lives were laid.
“I find that today life is all about ‘cha bu duo’. If you want to get mad at anything, question something, assert or point out its inferiority, then people get embarrassed. They say; ‘Why waste your energy on getting angry? These are not things you can control…But shouldn’t they be?”
Jia Aili was born into a simple family of that salt of the earth type with which great tragic epics are credited. Perhaps for this reason, and the location in the small town of Dandong, the urban development that he finds himself in the midst of, seems too fast and too hard to be thrilling or alluring. It’s too gritty and too fickle. He describes himself as an ordinary boy with an ordinary background, that makes him rather too innocent to deal with the negotiations and to nurture the navigational skills required to ride out the waves / survive the tide. He’s innocent almost to the point of being naive. This is a part of youth perhaps, and of youthful wonderment at the world. He’s not tainted as yet, and has not lost the will to believe in ideals—in the far side of rainbows and the ultimate inevitable rewarding of good deeds.
Jia Aili is concerned that friends might not understand his painting…which is odd because he is quick to bemoan the fact that they don’t understand him. How can he expect then that they can understand the message of his paintings? Although young and only just starting out as a teacher, he has students who copy his style, appropriate elements of it, because they think it looks good. This is an example of what concerns him about being understood or not, or the point being missed entirely.
“I can’t say that I have ever seen ‘beauty’ in a pure and unadulterated form, but I do know what is not beautiful.” Could we just describe him as being picky? Pedantic? “Yes, I am.” Having parents that supported his choice of training and career rather encouraged their son to forge an independent mind. He received further support from tutors and professors at Lu Xun Academy, and ones suspects due to the talent he was recognised as possessing. This also explains why he was kept on after graduation with a position on the teaching staff. The schedule doesn’t seem to affect his output.
Works in the Studio
A small painting, of a masked man, seated in a desolate landscape, in quarter profile, looking nowhere that we can see, but to a point on the far low horizon under that big sky that is off the edge of the canvas to the right. It is an exquisitely detailed work, but one comes to the details later, having first succumbed to the austere environment and let the cold and chill of isolation wash over us as it does the figure in the composition.
A large two-panel work of a car crash off to the right side of the right-hand panel. A man stands gazing at the ‘accident’. This is a new style, reminiscent of the new work that Zeng Fanzhi has embarked upon in the last few years. He hates the comparison but there are elements that collide here. This is most obvious in the crazy shaping of the landscape, which Jia Aili affirms in his use of the character “feng” (crazy) as a substitute for “feng jing”. The feel is emotive, a frenzied explosion of emotion and notion in the strokes as they dance and shoot in every direction, uncoordinated and chaotic. The emphasis is on the dark lines, which form the main thrust of the activity. The sky above is a characteristic expanse of placid cold blue with a strong undertone of grey like a storm approaching. A small blob or smear of pinkish red sets the space in motion on the left hand side.
The main work in the lower studio is a monumental three-panel painting, three by six metres in size. It remains unfinished and was clearly the prototype for the ‘crazy’ landscape just described. Here the searching out of the manner of deploying the lines is clear—dark blackish-greens and purple, a sickly blue-black. This sky though is still clear, clean, although this is perhaps because the work is unfinished. It does carry a trail of thick, opaque smoke that rises from what can only be an explosion. Not cloud. In the centre is the familiar white bed that appeared as a feature of his work ?? in his first showing in Beijing at Platform.
Scattered around the lower studio are a number of paper works, which is a delicious sight—offering hints of what is to come on canvas and a more earthy direct and certainly unpolished vision of the emotion that underlies the final canvas paintings. These are at times very small and very sketchy (like the wide horizontal work that is mapped out on a piece of cardboard from a box).
Jia Aili points us to a work that was (unlike the other big pieces here that are taking or have taken so much time to complete) worked up in 45 minutes. It too remains unfinished but is pretty competent and resolved all the same. The overall tone is different to his usually palette. A sand yellow that is at times milky grey like an insipid wheat porridge. It shows a figure 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. Jia Aili was interested in the rubbish abandoned outside the studio, and asked the guy to stand there. The emotion imbued in the work relates to the awkwardness of the response of students arriving fro class and seeing the model plucked from the usual environment of the studio and how uncomfortable the model was standing there, vulnerable and exposed. A metaphor for humanity in Jia Aili’s estimation. The space is odd, hollow. Partly enhanced by the fact that he stands before a fire door, which is meant to serve as a safety measure but as Jia Aili points out is always locked. There’s no escape from danger—a function negated creating a sense of claustrophobia. This panel is intended to be part of a triptych that has yet to materialise.
Here in the lower studio is Jia Aili’s first ‘installation’ painting. A series of surfaces and objects that have been painted over, blacked out in a way, but that together form an environment which the artist feels represents his own space as well as his mental state. A pillow in the only object with a discernable image…the horizon and the detritus of an explosion or disturbance. Objects comprise a wok, a scroll painting now covered over, a book, its pages blanked out, and a canvas. “Paintings in themselves always lack something. This dislocation or deconstruction of a single composition, manages to evoke what I feel is missing in the spaces in between, the absence of what should be there which is now there for the viewer to imagine.” He says it felt good to move the act of painting off a conventional canvas, and achieve the goal of expressing painting as an attitude of mind.
The reason that many works get set aside half finished is that for Jia Aili, the act of conceiving a composition often means that the work is realised in his mind. The act of putting the idea on canvas is but illustrating the idea, which as he points out is hard when in your mind the work is already finished. Here, the notion that the reality doesn’t or can’t live up to the vision one has in the mind.
There’s another unfinished work in this vein that seems to allow us to complete it in our minds for the work although barely started is fantastic: it’s the promise it holds of potential to be as great as masterpiece as some of the other finished works he has achieved. There’s something alluring too in the freedom of lines and strokes, of swathes of paint that serve to mark out a future painting. The base, the primitive, first urge out of which so much more sprouts. Here we see the stone base, a block of stone that might be an epitaph, a memorial, a foundation, but painted so well that we forget to worry about what might be build upon it, or what even has been lost.
What’s interesting here, and put in mind that you stand before this painting, as Jia Aili says he seeks to create landscapes that are akin in hue to the colour of the clothes worn by patients in psychiatric hospitals. These paintings then centred on the emotions of woundedness, damage, with which Jia Aili concurs.
Moving upstairs to the second studio the mood is transformed under the auspices of a secondary palette of colour that is all green and sub-aqua. It’s not he blue greens of the sea but the olive, viridian greens and verdigris of dank stagnant waters. Lake waters, mountain waters and lakes that are thick and filled with plant life. The water so dense you never quite know what lies in the swamp suggested. The waterlily series depict a sense of isolation what is equally fraught with the danger of the unknown as that invoked in the wide open spaces of the desolate plains in other larger works. The figures here are all carrying objects, linked to them in ways that are not easily explained but are such that the figures are lost in their absorption with them. Not all are resolved, as the artist readily acknowledges. He’s not happy with them although these are examples of works over which he has laboured, “with which he has struggled” for an inordinate period of time. For him these are examples of the struggle, and where the mind looses synch with the hand. Technique becomes a disruptive element, leading the work in a direction the artist did not entirely intend. For this reason here the two works in the series he considers to have failed are actually rather dynamic, dramatic works. The surface of the long worked on pieces is glossy, rich, that of the others more chalky. And yet that chalkiness arouses a greater sense of depth that goes beyond the gloss of a mirror like surface. The mirror gloss makes you think of narcissus gazing at his reflection, caught up in it to the exclusion of all else. Each of the figures in each of the three canvases wades through waterlilies as much as water. For Jia Aili these works are a good example of how the paintings are but a stage upon which the action—minimal though it is—is set. Here we see too the introduction of words, indicating a love of words that has Sun Ning suggest the artist is really a poet. This is an extract from the philosophical musings of Zhuang Zi.
They are delicious paintings though. All contain the man in the mask wading waist deep in opaque dank water. It is a discarded work that presents the chalky façade mentioned previously. But that does not make it any less of a work—in fact it is the most intriguing of the series. Perhaps because it has clearly been a struggle, and where immediately was not going the way Jia Aili had envisaged, was guiding him in a slightly divergent direction, along a tangential path for which he was at that instant not yet ready to travel. A man, the usual, same, stands in his habitual apparel, the singular mask, and looks towards a book held open in his hand like a poet strolling through a glade reciting verse. That’s the feel, although what is physically represented is quite different, even to our eyes. Masked, the figure would be hard put to read anything on a page before him, and the mask also acts as a gag, if not silencing his voice then muffling all words to leave his mouth. Communication here again distorted, even between the figure himself and the object of his attention, the book. This image is repeated in a second work—of the vertical triptych, but the mood is quite, though subtly so, different. The abandoned one just captures that elusive je ne sais crois of all brilliant painted visions.
“I never try to seek a concept for my works” the artist states. But he did consciously endeavour to achieve a diversity of painted surface and texture in the triptych and the larger work that seems to accompany it but actually stands alone. This large square format work is built up of layer after layer of almost transparent washes of oil paint, which have been allowed to run and dribble in various directions. The result is a degree of luminosity that has the work almost glowing. Although true it does look like it’s been left out in the rain. This does not make the surface any less rich. Conversely, the image of rain goes well with the impression of virdigris, the blue-ing tone of copper left out in the path of the elements. The image shows a figure in a boat, similar to the boat and posture of the same figure that has featured in other, smaller works.
Very often, simply because the elements brought into the composition are so very minimal, it can take ages to decide their exact placement. Here we return to the one I like most, which was painted fast, but over which hours were spent deciding the fate of the figure’s right arm. On the hip, behind the back—a reference to the famed and familiar stance adopted by Mao. The hip won. Jia Aili sees this work as being about vulgarity, or arrogance of the ignorant—the guy trying to read when he is so obviously handicapped. He points to another figure, also carrying an object, which also brings us to the new works.
In stark contrast to these are new works, which again return the mental association to the strokes of Zeng Fanzhi. Here a figure in the middle of a muddy grey explosion of lacerating strokes that dance and zigzag across the surface without any really clear goal in mind. We can however see a figure which is apparently walking across the picture plane carrying an unidentifiable object through a dumping ground piled high with what seem to be abandoned electrical appliances---or is that just the sense imploded by the zazazaz of the network of tangled lines? It is indisputably the debris of the modern age. High technology rusting useless, it’s working life spent. Next to this bleak scenario, is another, of a world equally unpromising yet all the more disturbing for the brilliant and unclouded blue sky that hovers behind the massed heap of abandoned refrigerators. As a third experiment in this new direction we find a horizontal painting—the first being vertical—which takes the same idea, the same motion, the same scenario, but from a wider angle—as if a film set with a second camera on hand as a backup to the first. Here the object in the figure’s hand is more recognisably a television, of the old ‘tube’ type—rapidly being replaced in homes around the world by the new generation of flat screens. The abandoned objects in the background are easier to identify too—here cars, waiting / ready for / having been through the crusher. Here again the chalky opacity of lines completely alters the finished result. It looks less like a “Jia Aili”. More like a Schnabel. Of the previous works of the car crash and even the abstract one, none have a texture quite like this. But perhaps new is good? It definitely lets him test boundaries and keep above falling into a rut.
Why does he carry a television set? “Because I hate TV,” seethes Jia Aili. “Hate…because actually I love watching it! The problem is the power of its appeal, and yet the damage that watching it inflicts upon those who watch—their ability to think and their mental state and attitude. He makes a play of words here too: “yu le” for entertainment has the “yu” substituted with “yu” meaning stupid. So are we to see TV as treasure or trash?
As a final piece evident in the current sequence we see the dump again but this time as a fine horizontal stripe across the top of the canvas. The rest the big white expanse below is supposed to represent a corregated iron fence—and will be left blank. This change of ‘content’ is linked to a new interest in painting on the backs of old canvases that he himself or others have abandoned. “I like them dusty, scruffy, and then to put a pristine new painting on top. Just across one area.”
“Painting doesn’t always satisfy me,” he says. “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.”—like those that went astray but one suspects to which he’ll return when he recognises their potential. At times he says he has deliberately sought to create distinctly different styles, styles so different one assumes the works were each created by a different person. But that doesn’t mean I don’t make each work the best it can possibly be.
Jia Aili likes pondering those eternal questions that Gauguin gave painted form to: Where do we come from, where are we going…
“I’ll probably be done with the mask after this show. I’m interested in machines. Just think how everyone craved these simple household items in the 1980s and now today we have them and have probably gone through two or three, and they just get thrown away like this. Who could have predicted that such venerable objects would have such short life spans. It’s like using a car to use up oil so we can move on…”
For the show he wants to introduce the element of installation, or physical space of which the paintings are a part. A net that would hang as a barrier in the space in front of the work and through which the audience would be forced to view the work. Adjusting the body as necessary. It’s all about playing with desires, limiting them as in the desire to see all, to consume all the painting. He intends to produce a large bright alluring work of a completely different palette to the current one(s) and cordon it off with the ‘net’.
He talks of seeing graffiti on toilet walls and doors and how this strikes him as true expression, heartfelt at that. He suggests that compared with much painting today, it would be more interesting for audiences if curators put such doors and sections of walls in museums rather than bland, emotionless stuff that we so often see. “It touches people…it’s better able to move people.”
And as we feel we have almost finished, he suddenly draws out other works. A horizontal water lily painting…so beautiful. A small abstract crash work that looks like it was a sketch for the original. A curling spiral of smoke the only action. A small sketch work of a man standing on the very edge of a building, gazing down. Will he jump…? Downstairs a large two-panel work of the composition on a small scale that is by the door. It is spectacular. Fulfilling the promise of the other two-panel work, also unfinished, that was hidden (?), and currently has no figure…(which one has no figure?).
Right back to his graduation work, the four panels each tall thin as the figure depicted in each in various postures and activities. They are painted well, but rather ‘conservative’ as compared to the newer post-academy works. And looking back, what amazing vision drove the huge vast pile up of corpses that was his main graduation composition. What was he thinking? It’s not finished and doubtful it ever will be. It appears to have been painted from left to right as part of the right portion (it’s a three-panel work) is far more resolved than the left. But as he says, quoting the essence of a Buddhist ideal ethic about always be desirous of seeing a flower in bud, not in bloom, of seeing a crescent and not a full moon, and taking comfort in the certain knowledge that the best is yet to come.