JIA AILI (B. 1979)
JIA AILI (B. 1979)
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JIA AILI (B. 1979)


JIA AILI (B. 1979)
signed and dated ‘JAL 2011’ (lower right); signed and dated again ‘JAL 2011-2012’ (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
232 x 200 cm. (91 3/8 x 78 3/4 in.)
Painted in 2011-2012
Acquired directly from the artist by the present owner
Singapore Art Museum, Seeker of Hope: Works by Jia Aili, exh. cat. Singapore, 2012 (illustrated, p. 74).
Fabien Fryns (ed.), Hatje Cantz Verlaq GmbH, Jia Aili Stardust Hermit, Berlin, Germany, 2017 (illustrated, pp. 144-145).
Centro de Arte Contemporáneo de Málaga, Jia, Aili, exh. cat. Malaga, Spain, 2017 (illustrated, pp. 44-45).
Singapore, Singapore Art Museum, Seeker of Hope: Works by Jia Aili, July – September 2012.
Venice, Italy, Teatrino di Palazzo Grassi, Jia Aili, May-July 2015.
Málaga, Spain, Centro de Arte Contemporáneo de Málaga, Jia Aili, March – June 2017.

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Jacky Ho (何善衡)
Jacky Ho (何善衡) Senior Vice President, Deputy Head of Department

Lot Essay

“Why do we enjoy looking at paintings? It’s because they involve the movement of human hands. If the same image were printed by a machine, we might simply lose interest.” Jia Aili

As one of the foremost figurative painters of his generation, Jia Aili’s dream-like compositions often resist clear interpretation. In 2012, the artist began to explore imagery related to space travel and futuristic technology in his paintings. Obscure machinery and helmets feature prominently in his works from this period, hinting at the relationship between humans and our technological landscape. Untitled debuted at the Singapore Art Museum the year of its creation, as part of the exhibition Seeker of Hope: Works by Jia Aili . Retaining the psychological depth of his early works, Untitled marks a transition point in Jia’s career, as one of the first works to fully explore themes of space and technology that would become a recurring subject in his creative output.

Untitled features a trio of figures, gathered together in intimate conversation. In the centre of the painting, a woman wears a perfectly spherical bubble-like helmet, reminiscent of vintage spaceage astronauts from the 1960s. Two children, a boy and a girl, are dressed in the neat white shirts and bright red neck-kerchief of the Young Pioneers ( 中國少年先鋒隊), while behind the figures a cavernous space can be glimpsed, littered with what appears to be the remnants of fantastical machines. The scene is rendered with Jia Aili’s characteristic blend of realistic and abstract elements, and is a singularly unique work within his oeuvre.

Jia Aili was born in 1978 in Dandong, an industrial border city located in northern China. Jia has described his hometown as having “a sense of barrenness, an experience of living in a place that was extremely cold for most of the year.” Many of Jia’s works seem to evoke cold industrial settings that may have been inspired by his early childhood, featuring shadowy figures and abstract landscapes dominated by hues of blue and grey. Historical paraphernalia such as gas masks and engines often make an appearance in his compositions, evoking a past that skews towards the fantastical than historically accurate. In Untitled , several elements seem to have been drawn from a mixture of historical and contemporary sources. The red neck-kerchiefs worn by the children are part of the uniform worn by China’s Young Pioneers, a youth organization founded in 1949. The bubble-like helmet and brightly striped blouse worn by the woman may be a reference to the futuristic uniforms and headgear designed by Emilio Pucci for Braniff International Airways in the 1960s, inspired by the future era of space travel.

Even when they can be clearly discerned, the subjects of Jia Aili’s paintings are often deeply enigmatic. Jia’s work draws upon traditions of surrealism, depicting scenes and figures in illogical combinations with a dream-like haziness that is difficult to describe. Jia has spoken about the intentional disassociation that his works provoke, stating that “Many paintings create illusions and ask people to live in those illusions, inadvertently and comfortably. Sometimes I want to make the illusion less comfortable, to inspire viewers to think. Discomfort induces doubts.”

The painterly qualities of Untitled are evident in Jia’s skilful handling of composition and detail. The work is suffused by a mysterious light source, which creates a high contrast chiaroscuro effect as the three central figures are lit in a cold light against a dim, inky backdrop. The effect recalls the paintings of classical painters from Rembrandt to Joseph Wright of Derby, who manipulated lighting to great dramatic effect in their works. Jia also uses colour to highlight visual details – the boy’s profile is defined by a bright lemon-yellow brushstroke, while touches of violet, teal and pink give dimensionality to the children’s shirts and surroundings. Details such as the large mushroom in the central figure’s hand, and the pearl hairclip in the girl’s hair enhance the overall surrealism of the scene.

Jia Aili’s painting style is influenced by artists such as Gerhard Richter and Lucien Freud, who pioneered a style of expressionistic painting that blurs boundaries between the realism and painterly expressionism. Many details in Untitled are intentionally left hazy – the features on the central woman’s face are lightly obscured, while flecks and streaks of paint scattered across the canvas evoke television static or the patina of an old photograph, reminding us of the presence of the painted surface.

“What a painting expresses depends on more than its image alone,” says Jia. “I don’t think my paintings are born out of the emotion or feeling of a certain moment; I hope their meaning emerges from a more complete level. For me, the action of painting involves facing specific, delicate matters. I rarely make overall cultural assumptions, I prefer to focus on the relativity and absoluteness of painting, on using colour, shape, and structure to create transcendental vision.” Looking at the work as a whole, the scene that emerges is one that explores the tension between tradition and modernization, the recognizable and the dream-like. His paintings exude a nostalgia for the past, but also seem to embrace a hazy vision of an imagined, collective future.

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