Jia Aili

Timeless, apocalyptic landscapes - imbued with spirituality and brightened by hope.

artist walking in front of huge wall mural painting holding a very long tool
artist with back turned to camera holding paint brush towards canvas on his right and looking at an image on an easel to his left
side profile view of artist working on a large blue painting before him
6 images

Despite maintaining a studio in downtown New York, Jia Aili is based predominantly in Beijing, China, where he was born in 1979.

Movements

He is one of a new generation of Chinese artists, reared in the post-Mao Zedong era, who are known for eschewing the overtly political themes of previous generations in favour of merging classical Eastern modes of art-making with their own contemporary issues.

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Recent years have seen his practice shift from darkly theatrical scenes to more colourful, intensely abstract works which have steadily increased in scale, with some canvases taking several years to complete.

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Practice overview

Jia is best known as an oil painter but also works across drawing, photography and print. His cinematic compositions depict arid landscapes and human figures, alongside futuristic architectural forms. The artist has had huge commercial and critical success with international museum retrospectives at institutions like Singapore Art Museum and Contemporary Art Centre of Málaga, along with auction prices exceeding two million USD. Jia’s dramatic palette uses Caravaggio-esque chiaroscuro, pairing dark greys, blues and blacks against bright white brushstrokes. His later works such as Nothing Else (2019) move towards brighter colours and dynamic abstract shapes reminiscent of Futurist painters like Tullio Crali and Benedetta Cappa. Pulling together elements of hyperreal figuration popular in Chinese contemporary art, expressive natural landscapes evocative of the Romantics, and epic Hollywood landscapes, Jia creates scenes that convey the blithe potential yet looming catastrophe of the future.

Driven by emotion and experimentation, process is fundamental to Jia’s work. Mountain and Wave Line (2020), for example, covers new ground in his practice. The work is a tranquil mountain range reminiscent of Caspar David Friedrich encased in a white, free-standing frame. In front of the canvas is a sheet of glass where soft, briskly drawn scribbles whip across the surface. These new materials and modes of display give the work a contemporary minimalist feel. As Jia explains, “when I was painting the mountains, the emotions I mobilized were totally different [from previous works]. I felt completely peaceful.” Thus, Jia brings art back to its pure roots: emotional expression via the material exploration of paint.

Born in 1979, the inaugural year of the one-child policy in China, Jia uses his work to reflect on contemporary Chinese society alongside technological globalisation. Motifs like gas masks, industrial waste, the hammer and sickle, and the mushroom cloud, as well as figures on fire which recall the use of napalm in the Vietnam war, all point towards the pernicious violence of human development and warfare. However, at the same time, the alluring sci-fi aesthetic bestows a sense of wonderment towards these same modes of technological advancement for their achievements in design and engineering. This paradoxical criticality is central to Jia’s practice: by situating specific histories within the timeless spirituality of his process, Jia highlights how industrialisation has eroded the spiritual development of the human race. At once in our world and outside of it, Jia’s painting is an ode to the ugliness and beauty, threat and hope of existence.

“Painting is not a reproduction of the objective world, but meticulous care of the spirit.”Jia Aili