During the six years he spent at the Lu Xun Academy of Fine Arts, Jia Aili received rigorous training in classical painting, specialising in the Neorepresentational style. His focus was on exploring the mental states of humanity. As Jia Aili's father was a writer, the artist was surrounded by literature and books on politics while he was growing up. His favourite works were early Russian epic tragedies and elegies. Jia arrived in Beijing in 2007 and started painting in a rational and objective style. By combining historical excerpts and scenes with his own memories, he crafted subjectively realistic scenes in a hyper-realistic way. Jia directs an epic drama on the canvas, “…. 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.” (A Walk in the World of Jia Aili, Karen Smith)
Micky’s Redemption (Lot 59) was painted in 2009, a period during which Jia focused on paintings that emphasise the relationship between light and colour. The sophisticated composition demonstrates the interconnectivity between time and space. Jia Aili forgoes a colourful palette, instead using a white background painted over in varying intensities of black washes in order to model the figures; the resulting effect is a dreamlike quality that lends the composition the appearance of a still from a silent movie. Viewers are not immediately concerned with the subject matter or narrative, but rather are astonished by the dramatic effect accomplished by the interplay between the shifting gradient tones, which convey the relationship between characters and the intensity of the atmosphere. This powerful yet nuanced technique demonstrates the treaties on the colours black and white advanced by Italian Renaissance artist Leon Battista Alberti. The painting is also a testament to E.H. Gombrich's theory on light and colours: artists should not over-indulge in bright hues if they wish to illuminate. By choosing to limit his pallet, Jia is able to express light to a greater extent in the work. This masterful use of light and colour makes this naturalistic scene appear slightly surreal: all the characters who are wearing Mickey ears stare at the character on the far left, listening intently: he is the only person without mouse ears. All kinds of speculations and questions arise out of these circumstances—the lamp lying on its side illuminates the group from the centre, yet it is the central figure that appears to be the actual source of light. If the rays of light are real, then is the central character is an illusion? If the scene is portrayed the monochrome tones of a silent film, then why do the hues feel so impalpable? Is the speaker real? Or is the audience fictitious? Which elements are objective reality and which are subjective perception? The historic truth, the out-of-context excerpts, the mysteriously fabricated appendix, and the subliminal messages all work in concert to entice the viewers to wander between rational cognition and emotional sensibility - the answer is something that they have to discover for themselves. Time and memory are frozen in a still frame, and made visible for consideration. Jia's use of light and composition is reminiscent of Rembrandt's similar treatment in The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp. (Fig. 1) The viewers are drawn into the undefined territory between real and illusion.
To Jia Aili, painting is not merely an act of recording a memory or history, “To me, no matter how objective history seems to be, volumes of secrets must be buried beneath the surface. It will always be worthwhile to unearth the hidden meanings. The hidden narratives are what I am after.” His objective is to “fabricate even more secrets, more substance, and more interest.” (Jia Aili, Towards the Chaotic Reality – A Conversation with Zhu Zhu) Jia combines the sophistication of Modernism with the lowbrow aesthetics of popular culture to achieve a dystopic sensibility. Through addressing this sense of fear, anxiety, and adversity, Jia aims to retrace history and find inner peace. Through utilizing his technical abilities in classicism and naturalism, in multiple layers of translucent washes, he coaxes a completed composition out of the canvas. This distinct treatment gives the composition space, adding dimensions of light and shadow. The painting exudes a quietude while simultaneously making an explosive impact. It is as though the viewer is looking at the painting through the lens of a camera, zooming in to distinguish what is real and what is an illusion. From this distance, the viewer can savour the complex relationship between the individual, reality, and history.