Presenting a vast, dramatic and engulfing post-apocalyptic vision, Jia Aili’s White Chair is a supreme example from the artist’s celebrated body of seascapes that transforms barren desolation into beautiful poetry. Across the expanse of the canvas, the composition is divided horizontally into sea and sky with a devastating starkness. Just off-center, illuminated against the horizon, is the silhouette of a small white shape that from a distance appears to be a lonely lighthouse; upon closer inspection, it is revealed to be a human figure atop a white chair, precariously adrift at sea. In the immediate foreground towards the lower right, a shadow looms – the jutting bow of a sinking barge indicated with the minimum of detail that blends in with the leaden blackness of the sea. The view is from an omnipresent aerial perspective, with the composition’s main space dominated by a blinding abyss of light that collapses all boundaries: with nothing to hold on to, the viewer is left teetering between sky and sea, night and day, despair and hope. In line with the very best of Jia Aili’s creations, White Chair takes reference from iconic works in Western art history and is strongly reminiscent of Caspar David Friedrich’s Monk by the Sea. Heinrich von Kleist’s description of Friedrich’s work in 1810 is remarkably apt in encapsulating the ethos of the present work, created some 200 years later: “Nothing could be more sombre nor more disquieting than to be placed thus in the world: the one sign of life in the immensity of the kingdom of death, the lonely center of a lonely circle. With its two or three mysterious objects the picture seems somehow apocalyptic […] its monotony and boundlessness are only contained by the frame itself”.
Born in 1979, Jia Aili graduated from the Lu Xun Academy of Fine Arts in 2004 and ranks amongst the most renowned young contemporary Chinese artists working in the world today. Having grown up in Dandong in the northeastern Liaoning Province at the border of China and North Korea, Jia Aili’s childhood experience of long frigid winters influenced his recurrent depictions of chilly horizons and boundless stretches of land. While Jia Aili’s training at the Lu Xun Academy was closely tied to the Soviet socialist realism of the 1950s, he was simultaneously influenced by diverse lineages from both Eastern and Western art. Most notably, Jia Aili was strongly drawn to the techniques of classical artists such as Michelangelo and Caravaggio; very early on, Jia Aili started to “emphasise the deep perspective of the picture plane and the chiaroscuro treatment of light, shadow, shape and space, creating his own theatrical approach to painting” (David Chew, ‘Portrait of a Contemporary Romantic’, in exh. cat. Singapore Art Museum, Seeker of Hope: Works by Jia Aili, 2012, p. 10). The artist himself has also declared an indebtedness to realist painters from China and beyond, stating: “When I first studied painting, I was influenced by figurative painters like Freud and Liu Xiaodong. Their kind of painting has actually always inspired me to paint in a relatively realist manner, even today. During my student years, Liu Xiaodong shook me to the core again and again with his exquisite renditions of social reality and social psychology” (Determinate and indeterminate or unsolved mysteries: Conversations between Jia Aili and Feng Boyi, 2010).
The singular lexicon of Jia Aili’s images thus derives from a complex engagement with tropes and ideas from Western art history, specifically romanticism and the pastoral landscape, combined with the reality of his local subject matter. The artist is concerned with expressing existential angst on an epic universal and timeless level as well as specifically at the level of the contradictions between contemporary culture and the logic of capitalism. Jia Aili grew up in the 1980s and 1990s, a period in which China was undergoing rapid liberalisation and economic development. Unlike the earlier generation of Chinese artists, Jia Aili is less concerned with reviewing specific incidents or iconography of modern Chinese history, finding inspiration instead within more intimate personal narratives – specifically, his resistance and scepticism towards social transformations, technological progress and a world that is increasingly connected yet also increasingly alienated and estranged. As David Chew observes, Jia Aili “sees himself as a commentator of his age, calling to mind the period of romanticism – this movement that questioned the changes and advancement of society at that time, which saw artists seeing themselves as representing the voice of their time” (Ibid., p. 11).
Just as romantic paintings encapsulate the authority of nature and the Sublime, Jia Aili harnesses the imagery of nature (wastelands, oceans, beaches) as a metaphor for a kind of universal and eternal existential struggle. Karen Smith further notes during Jia Aili’s childhood, books by Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy and Balzac were present in his household and read by the artist in his youth, and that the theme of “tragedy of struggling” underscores the artist’s entire oeuvre (Karen Smith, A Walk in the World of Jia Aili, 2007). In the present work, the lone character, subservient to the elements, points to man’s solitary struggle against all odds – a struggle that is simultaneously tragic and heroic, and hence, exquisitely beautiful. In the boundless desolation of White Chair we are reminded that strife and agony is eternal and infinite, but not without small respites, such as the beam of a lighthouse or the support of a chair. Amidst unending toil, one can sit down and rest; here, the incongruous chair lends a particularly poignant, even whimsical, element to the otherwise sombre composition. Much more than a seascape, exhibiting virtuosic paint-handling in keeping with the best of Jia Aili’s output, White Chair manifests in one powerful image the drastic complexity of social transformations, the anguished pathos of existence, and the heart-wrenching resilience of mankind.
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