Jia Aili - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale London Wednesday, February 12, 2020 | Phillips

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  • Video

    Jia Aili, 'The Young', Lot 8

    20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale, 13 February

  • Provenance

    Private Collection, Europe (acquired directly from the artist)

  • Catalogue Essay

    ‘I was born at the end of the 20th century, where most ethnic groups in human society began to step out of the world of all-inclusive religious frameworks... with the explosion of information that is now available to us, our perception has become both flat and rich’ – Jia Aili

    Portraying the silhouette of a frail young child lured by a skeleton into a barren landscape, The Young, 2012, demonstrates Jia Aili’s virtuosic ability to convey the contemporary formulation of a danse macabre. Eerily ethereal, and punctuated by various temporal and cultural codes, the painting places realism in dialogue with abstraction; it is at once traditional in its clean figurative strokes, and contemporary in its retrofuturistic feel, mirroring the stylised aesthetics of sci-fi graphics and illustrated novels. In proposing an image deprived of spatio-temporal anchors, Jia furthermore departs from a generation of Chinese artists who, for multiple decades, focused on overtly political themes. Instead, he devises a broader narrative, specifically veered towards the notion of nothingness – a sense of loss in time and space that better corresponds to the existential concerns of the modern man. As Karen Smith writes, ‘Jia’s paintings ask if we are destined, as a species, to destroy ourselves […] The urgent complexity of [this irresolvable issue] feeds the aura of the paintings, colouring the brooding skies that hang heavy overhead as well as the far reaches of plains that stretch to the distant horizons. In search of hope, they continue to reveal a brave new world' (Karen Smith, ‘Jia Aili’, Palazzo Grassi – Teatrino, 2015, online).

    Interspersed by passages of frosty blues and eerie reds, The Young is drenched in a dystopian palette that encapsulates the sense of anguish and alienation that Jia strives to penetrate in his painterly compositions. The image at its heart is simple yet absorbing. In it, a child stretches to the level of the viewer’s eye, reinforcing the palpability of their action. They walk along an amalgamation of jagged lines, hair firing away and feet sinking into the ground. Meanwhile, the skeleton leaning on their shoulder stares at their obscured face intently, as if giving instructions to stay afloat in a landscape of utter isolation. In this respect, the skeleton figure posits as an ambivalent entity: a reminder of the deafening silence that engulfs the child on the one hand, and a much-needed respite from the desolation and strife surrounding them on the other. Teetering between these contradicting possibilities, the viewer is, for this work, presented with disparate visions of night and day, despair and hope. In another words, The Young is like a dream in a frame, threatening at any moment to plunge into the realm of nightmares.

    Jia frequently alludes to the dichotomy between the individual and the collective in his work. Born in Dandong – the heartland of Northeast Asia, located at the border of China and North Korea – the artist grew alongside the burgeoning post-Mao generation and one-child policy, which transformed, perhaps more than ever before, the country’s political, social and economic landscapes. The importance of the individual – in the past always superseded by that of the collective in Chinese culture – then began to be recognised; a possibility only amplified by the rise of capitalism. As a result, Jia’s imaginative tableaux boast the ambivalence that pervaded his home country, reflecting the fraught notions that capitalism and the Chinese government attempted to impart to the lives of Chinese people in turn. As remarked by Graham W. Bell, ‘Perhaps this lonely entity [in Jia Aili’s work] is a stand-in for the artist himself, or symbolic of a more generalized idea of the individual in the age of social media and ceaseless communication [...] With his constant references to decay, vague machinery, and figures lost in a desolate realm, the artist asks us to reconsider the world in light of technological advancement and seems to paint a portentous vision of progress gone awry’ (Graham W. Bell, ‘Jia Aili: Combustion’, The Brooklyn Rail, April 2019, online).

    Yet there exists in Jia’s hyper-contemporary iconographic universe a form of classicism, feeding from the realms nature and literature. Doubtlessly, Jia’s childhood experience of long, frosty winters in Dandong influenced his depictions of moody horizons and interminable stretches of land. Karen Smith adds that books by Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy and Balzac – which were present in his household and read by the artist in his youth – only emphasised the theme of ‘tragedy of struggling’ that underpins his oeuvre (Karen Smith, A Walk in the World of Jia Aili, 2007, reproduced online). Though clearly redolent of young comic book protagonists influenced by benevolent (or dangerous) acolytes, The Young equally recalls ancient parchment illustrations, memento mori from Renaissance paintings, and, most strikingly, the figure of Hades – the God of Underworld in Greek mythology – who led human souls to the lands of Hell. In this perspective, The Young is an exquisite reinvention of the danse macabre, engulfed in painterly abstraction.

    Though Jia was attracted to the epic and dramatic qualities so often tied to the Soviet socialist realism of the 1950s when he was a student at the Lu Xun Academy, he also took inspiration from a number of lineages from Eastern and Western art. He was mindful of the methods employed by classical artists particularly, looking at artists like Michelangelo and Caravaggio. As a result, he attempted to similarly accentuate ‘the deep perspective of the picture plane and the chiaroscuro treatment of light, shadow, shape and space, creating his own theatrical approach to painting’ in his art (David Chew, ‘Portrait of a Contemporary Romantic’, Seeker of Hope: Works by Jia Aili, exh. cat., Singapore Art Museum, 2012, p. 10). Jia furthermore confessed an indebtedness to realist painters, musing: ‘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’ (Jia Aili, in conversation with Feng Boyi, ‘Determinate and indeterminate or unsolved mysteries: Conversations between Jia Aili and Feng Boyi’, 2010, n.p.).

    In the Western art historical canon, Jia collected inspiration from movements both old and new. The Young, as such, recalls a number of canvases birthed by the Surrealist movement, just as it does the Romantics’ allegorical landscapes, which were often vast to the point of abstraction. Artists such as René Magritte and Giorgio de Chirico painted scenes designed to trigger subconscious associations; similarly, The Young floats between a dream and a reality, anchored solely by the visual link of historic painterliness. In this perspective, Gustav Klimt’s impossibly metaphorical Death and Life, in which a mosaic-gowned skull looks over an unsuspecting amalgamation of dormant humans, is brought to mind. Yet in its poetic and indistinct subject matter, the composition is also strongly reminiscent of Vija Celmins’ unfathomably graceful Night Skies, in which the artist captures the ever-fascinating phenomenon of darkness, only so slightly illuminated by scintillating stars. Finally, the figure of the skeleton summons the enduring tradition of vanitas which pervaded a large stretch of art history, embodied notably by Harmen van Steenwyck’s infamous Still Life: An Allegory of the Vanities of Human Life, c. 1640.

    Yet moving beyond classical references of the artistic canon, Jia makes the point that the richness of information in the modern world has allowed for people to connect on levels never reached before. As a result, the entire world has more in common today than it ever did in the history of mankind, and images carry more meaning, more emotions, more impressions that can easily be transmitted from one continent to the other. An ingenious fruit crafted to reflect this phenomenon, The Young speaks to a global audience rather than a specific region or culture. It is the meeting of a young child and death – an encounter that all human beings remember, for it constitutes perhaps one of the most formative and levelling stages of life. As summarised by Karen Smith, ‘For Jia, this vision of desolation, which he juxtaposes with the image of innocent childhood that is ever on the verge of being sullied by the horrors of reality always just out of range of the pictorial space, is a subtle means of articulating in a universal tongue the impositions placed upon his generation’ (Karen Smith, ‘Jia Aili’, Palazzo Grassi – Teatrino, 2015, online).


The Young

signed with the artist's initials and dated 'JAL 2012' lower right; further signed with the artist's initials and dated '2012 JAL' on the reverse
oil on canvas
200.3 x 180.5 cm (78 7/8 x 71 1/8 in.)
Painted in 2012.

£400,000 - 600,000 

Sold for £855,000

Contact Specialist

Olivia Thornton
Head of 20th Century & Contemporary Art, Europe
+44 20 7318 4099
[email protected]


Rosanna Widén
Senior Specialist, Head of Evening Sale
+44 20 7318 4060
[email protected]

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 13 February 2020