Menu

Gagosian Quarterly

Spring 2019 Issue

Jia Aili: Human Nature

The artist speaks with the Quarterly about interrogating perceptions, questioning illusions, and the primacy of intuition.

Jia Aili in his studio, 2017–18

Jia Aili in his studio, 2017–18

Jia Aili

Jia Aili was born in Dandong, China, in 1979 and lives and works in Beijing. In 2004 he graduated from the New Representationalism Studio of the Lu Xun Academy of Fine Arts, where he subsequently taught from 2005 to 2007, before focusing exclusively on his career as a painter. He participated in the collateral events of the 54th Venice Biennale in 2011.

Photo: Nan Lin

See all Articles

Gagosian QuarterlyWhen you’re working, are you thinking about narrative in any sense? Or are the paintings intended to escape narrative-based readings?

Jia AiliI almost never have a narrative in mind when I’m beginning a work, I start out from pure intuition. But quite a few viewers discover narratives, particularly in the larger-scaled pieces. That made me realize that narrative is about a way of reading—a visual narrative is produced by the order of vision.

What a painting expresses depends on more than its image alone. 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 color, shape, and structure to create transcendental vision.

I have a portrait [Untitled, 2013] that adds a complete circle to the body of a normal model. At first glance, people usually mistake the figure for a man with a big belly. While that visual illusion may make them uncomfortable, it also stimulates them, wakes up their aesthetic processes. What should representational painting be today? What is our present reality, and what is the act of creating images? Those questions lead to another: what is the essence of being a painter? There are different opinions on that; my own is that the painter is the person most closely related before, during, and after the production of vision.

Jia Aili: Human Nature

Jia Aili’s studio, 2017–18

GQIf you allow that viewers will come up with their own narratives in looking at your paintings, narratives beyond your control, is there anything you hope for from them—any way you’d like to see them respond?

JALWhen we’re looking at a figurative painting, our usual response is to focus on the perception created illusionistically rather than on the illusion itself. It’s the same in our daily behavior: people often use the perceptions created by illusion to understand and ponder the world and measure what they see. When we look at paintings, we need to broaden our perspective and see the illusion itself, or go farther and try to experience the whole process of illusion. That’s when we may really begin to understand painting.

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. If they can try to appreciate the artist’s most subtle and delicate perception and intention in the creative process, then when they look at works in different genres or forms, new perspectives and understandings will emerge.

For me, the painting process flows naturally along like the processes of life. It’s not a hierarchical progression. As long as life exists, experience will continue, and there will always be dilemmas. Once I thought painting meant solving issues little by little and making the work perfect, but now I realize that although you wanted to solve and improve, that’s impossible to achieve.

Speaking of how art reflects on human nature, my personal experience is that the process of painting involves the basic elements of painting. Every second involves interrogating the most profound and meticulous contemporary perception related to human nature. You’re in a state of total concentration. What I call perception or intuition is prior to logic. For an artist, that’s the key precondition.

Jia Aili: Human Nature

Jia Aili’s studio, 2017–18

GQIs there any experience that remains central to you—something informing your work in a permanent way?

JALAfter graduating from Lu Xun Academy of Fine Arts in 2004, I stayed there to teach. I was a young teacher and not many students were willing to listen to my views on art; they were busy grafting their knowledge of art onto strategies of success. Although I was curious about that, it also made me panic. That crisis slowly overwhelmed me and I felt I had to leave.

In the spring of 2007, I moved to Beijing, and settled near the city in a place called Black Bridge Village. There were people there from all over the country—migrant workers from remote areas, vendors, rock musicians waiting for contracts, released prisoners, psychics and living Buddhas, independent filmmakers, and of course artists like me, trying to make a living in Beijing. Their faces and eyes are still vivid to me today. We woke up every day to our own realities, or not so much our own realities but our common situation. I knew that countless people were leading such existences on Beijing’s outskirts, like besieging soldiers who could not yet conquer the city.

The Olympic flame came to Beijing in 2008, and while the fireworks shone in the sky, there were also tiny sparkles in our eyes. In that brief moment we seemed to have the pride and dignity that only people inside Beijing deserved. It was in that year that I began to create the oil-painting series We Are from the Century [2008–11].

In those years, while planting our own fields, we kept on observing the city. But eventually the real-estate coalitions of the city we thought we were going to invade swept us away. I lost my cheap rented studio, rolled up my canvases, and moved somewhere more marginal still. But I remember this group of people who really fell into art. They had an overpowering desire to take the reality around them as their subject, to keep trying for more far-reaching visual forms, and to surpass existing criteria of evaluation through the creation of works that were radical but still emotional. In the various ideas and values they acquired, they had the consciousness and integrity of true intellectuals.

So you can see that I have always been a marginal figure, but as an artist I prefer to see my work as based on looking, based on the gaze, because it makes me feel I mean something, although I still can’t tell you what painting is. A decade has passed in a blink of an eye and now I’m in New York again, where Bob Dylan, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and J. D. Salinger have all lived. But no matter how the situation changes, I want my art to retain the temperature of honesty.

GQIn the same way, is there any idea or principle you keep permanently in mind while you’re working?

JALWhen I’m painting, I’m always asking myself whether everything in front of me is true feeling and thought. Any kind of petit bourgeois emotional overflow will lead me into misunderstanding. In fact I’ve made many such mistakes, letting a work lose its granular sense of life and get pretentious, which disgraces my original intention.

Painters should be concerned with human nature, beginning with themselves. Work that’s mannerist, work that pretends to be simple—it’s all a disease. There’s no sincere experience in that kind of work; everything becomes affectation. Under cover of success, your intentions and beliefs have slipped away. If an artist loses his concern for human beings, he loses his reason to make art. That’s why we say that attitude supports method. Nowadays, I realize more and more clearly that the artistic concept I agree with belongs to humans rather than gods. As Nietzsche said, How can those who live in the light of day comprehend the depths of night?

Jia Aili: Human Nature

Jia Aili’s studio, 2017–18

GQIn previous bodies of work, the religious or divine surfaces in diverse ways—in figuration and metaphor, for instance. Does religious thought factor into these new works?

JALMany of us today believe that we’re living at a turning point. While we’re grateful for the rapid developments we’ve seen in science and technology, they are quietly changing our aesthetics and our thoughts. Behind the many difficulties we face is a deep spiritual crisis: in contemporary society, the divine is fading away. People today are more and more inclined to see everything as a “resource.” A lot of literature and art conveys sadness, even despair, about the contemporary religious and humanistic status quo. The end of an era is the end of some ways of living and thinking, and the arrival of a new era may not necessarily bring peace and light.

Artwork © Jia Aili Studio; photos: Jia Aili

Jia Aili working on the painting Everest (2020) in his studio in Beijing

Jia Aili: Before the Images Are Formed

Curator Shen Qilan speaks with the artist about his latest works.

Gagosian Quarterly Spring 2019

Now available
Gagosian Quarterly Spring 2019

The Spring 2019 issue of Gagosian Quarterly is now available, featuring Red Pot with Lute Player #2 by Jonas Wood on its cover.

Jeff Wall, Dead Troops Talk (a vision after an ambush of a Red Army Patrol, near Moqor, Afghanistan, winter 1986), 1992, transparency in lightbox, 90 ⅛ × 164 ⅛ inches (229 × 417 cm)

Death Valley ’89: Jeff Wall vs. Photography

Daniel Spaulding considers formal and technical developments in the photographer’s work against the background of global shifts of power and politics, specifically the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

Ewa Juszkiewicz, Untitled (after Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun), 2020, oil on canvas, 63 × 47 ¼ inches (160 × 120 cm)

Ewa Juszkiewicz

Lisa Small, senior curator of European art at the Brooklyn Museum, considers the historical precedents for Ewa Juszkiewicz’s painting practice.

Gaia Repossi. Photo: Zoe Ghertner

Fashion and Art: Gaia Repossi

The creative director of the Parisian jewelry house Repossi speaks with the Quarterly’s Wyatt Allgeier about her enduring love of Donald Judd, her use of photography and drawing in the design process, and the innovative collaborations, with visionaries like Rem Koolhaas and Flavin Judd, behind their retail spaces.

Installation view, Meleko Mokgosi: Democratic Intuition, Gagosian, Britannia Street, London, September 29–December 12, 2020. Artwork

Meleko Mokgosi: Democratic Intuition

Meleko Mokgosi writes about his eight-chapter painting cycle Democratic Intuition (2013–20), an epic of southern African life and folklore, on view at Gagosian in London in his first solo exhibition in the United Kingdom and Europe. Introduction by Louise Neri.

Rendering of framework for the new UCSD-Alacrán Community Station housing project on the remediated site, Alacrán Canyon, Tijuana, Mexico. Rendering: Estudio Teddy Cruz + Fonna Forman (Marcello Maltagliati)

Prouvé in Tijuana

Architect Teddy Cruz and political theorist Fonna Forman speak about a new social-housing project on the outskirts of Tijuana, and its connections to the modernist designer Jean Prouvé, with cultural historian Robert M. Rubin and critic Alastair Gordon.

Jay DeFeo’s Transcendent Objects

Jay DeFeo’s Transcendent Objects

Alice Godwin explores the shifts in Jay DeFeo’s practice in the 1970s, considering the familiar objects that became recurrent subjects in her work during these years and their relationship to the human body.

Sabina Belli, ceo of Pomellato

Fashion and Art: Sabina Belli

The CEO of Milanese jewelry company Pomellato speaks with the Quarterly about the role of art in the company’s design process, the importance of establishing a core DNA, and the Pomellato for Women campaign, a social initiative she founded in 2017.

Edmund de Waal, London, 2019

Edmund de Waal: psalm

Edmund de Waal speaks with Alison McDonald about the components of psalm, his two-part project in Venice. He details the influences behind the exhibition and reveals some of his hopes for the project.

Still from Vertigo (1958), directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Photo: PARAMOUNT PICTURES/Ronald Grant Archive/Alamy Stock Photo

Shortlist
Five Films: Louise Bonnet

Los Angeles painter Louise Bonnet reminisces about the films that influenced her development as an artist.

The cover of Emma Cline’s book "Daddy"

Northeast Regional

A short story by Emma Cline, published here on the occasion of her new collection of stories entitled Daddy.