Jia Aili (B. 1979)
Jia Aili (B. 1979)
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Jia Aili (B. 1979)


Jia Aili (B. 1979)
signed and dated 'JAL 2009' (lower right)
oil on canvas
105 ¼ x 81 ½ in. (267.3 x 207 cm.)
Painted in 2009.
Private collection, Asia
Anon. sale; Christie’s, Hong Kong, 22 November 2014, lot 27
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner
S. Shu and H.Yan, eds., Yishu Zhongguo Niandu Yishujia 5 Jia Aili, Sichuan, 2012, p. 53 (illustrated in color).
N. Foulkes, Jia Aili: Stardust Hermit, Berlin, 2017, p. 71 (illustrated in color).

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Ana Maria Celis
Ana Maria Celis

Lot Essay

Born in 1979, Jia Aili witnessed the dramatic changes that his nation had undergone in mere decades. Having experienced these tumultuous times personally, Jia Aili chooses a critical perspective that diverges greatly from his predecessors in contemporary art. He adopts a macro view that comments on the rise of China as a world power in the globalised era and how it influences the state of existence of humankind. As a frontrunner among the new generation of Chinese contemporary artists, Jia Aili is frequently invited to participate in international exhibitions — they include solo exhibitions at Centro de arte contemporáneo de Málaga in Málaga, Spain, Teatrino di Palazzo Grassi in Venice, Italy, and many more. Jia utilises the painting language of the 21st century to investigate into the primitive sense of confusion and alienation experienced by humankind in the postmodern world. His influential works broaden the horizon of Chinese contemporary art and open up new possibilities for upcoming generations of Chinese artists. Art critic Karen Smith lauded, “Not only are Jia Aili’s works important artistic achievements, they have also been acknowledged as a pivotal force that shapes a new generation of Chinese artists”.

The overall style of Unmixed is consistent with the artist’s landmark early series The Wasteland. Compared with other works from the series, the subject matter of Unmixed is distinctive. It was published in the book Art China: Artist Yearbook 5: Jia Aili as a part of a collection that represents the artist— it is evident that this is a crucial work in the artist’s career. In Unmixed, we see the continuation of the artist’s early motif of lightning bolts swiftly executed in autographic brushstrokes. The abstract treatment of the ruin is rendered with calligraphic lines that are sinewy and dynamic. The explosive power of the composition is achieved through the layering of brushwork. Every dry-brush stroke carries the exhilarating feeling of briskly executed gestural painting. Unmixed differs from earlier works in the sense that objects, setting, and the stabilising horizon line can no longer be deciphered. No concrete discourse of time, place, characters, or narrative of how the ruin was formed can be found in the painting. The artist exhaustively rids the work of any trace of narrative and adopts an open perspective in order to capture a lived experience that is universal. The world depicted in this work straddles between the real and the virtual in the process of both disintegration and convergence — the artist urges viewers to abandon any preconceived notion of objective reality before they enter his mental construct.

Jia Aili graduated from the Lu Xun Academy of Fine Arts. As a true disciple of Soviet Socialist realism, his received rigorous training in the oil painting tradition. Despite possessing such impressive technical prowess, he refuses to adopt a technique-driven style, which he considers to be a shortcut. Upon examining the picture, it is apparent that he scrupulously studied the sensitive treatment of light and shadow in Western classical painting — the sense of drama in this work is heightened by the tension inherent in the composition. It is the artist’s attempt to evoke a profound sense of pathos that can only be found in epic poetry. The degree of tragedy achieved here is reminiscent of the works by Francisco Goya. The way in which his religious paintings deeply examines and reflects the human psyche parallels Jia Aili’s concern for humanity, which is fundamental duty of the artistic discipline.

Compared with other works in The Wasteland series, Unmixed is singular in its peculiar and obscure use of imageries. The gas-masking-donning pseudoautobiographical figure who has made numerous appearances in the artist’s oeuvre is absent in this work. In his place is a figure sporting a headgear that is similar to Mickey Mouse ears. His face is blurry but he insists on wearing sunglasses. It is unclear whether he is nude or clothed. And his body language suggests that he could be either taking a stride to leave or standing still in contemplation. The nature of his intentions and behaviours confounds the viewers. Yet, this state of drudgery in which one is plagued by anxieties and contradictions is precisely the portrait of a generation. It confronts us with existential doubts.

The lamb in the figure’s arms ushers in the next chapter in the postmodern reading of this work. In Christianity, Christ and John the Baptist often cradle a lamb in their arms. At the same time, it is a symbol of Christ sacrificing his life to redeem humankind. The Parable of the Lost Sheep is often used to describe people who have gone astray in Western culture. Applying this metaphor to the context of the contemporary era, is it possible that the figure is holding Dolly the cloned sheep? The artist declared, “I can feel that the history of our time in which we are mired is gradually going through menopause. Will it follow by the quietude of twilight or the bliss of rebirth?” Jia Aili’s work seems to speak to the brutal fact that birth and annihilation are inseparable — creation, destruction, beginnings, endings, apocalypse, and utopia are all integral parts of the cyclical nature of the universe. Karen Smith elaborated that as a young man, Jia Aili extensively read works by Leo Tolstoy, Honoré de Balzac, and Fyodor Dostoevsky. As a result, the theme of “the tragedy of the struggle” extolled in these works formed Jia’s worldview, and it has become the fundamental tone in his life’s work.

Art can serve as a mirror that reflects the signs of its time. By adopting a new form of artistic language that straddles between narrative and anti-narrative, Unmixed reflects feelings of weariness, confusion, vacantness, and restlessness experienced by humanity in the postmodern world. This work is an inquiry into the meaning of individual existence that inevitably contributes to the collective fate of the human civilisation as a whole. The gravity of the situation discussed in this work deserves a landmark chapter in Chinese art history.

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