Jia Juanli Interview: The Stickness of the Painting
Location: At the home of Jia Juan Li’s friend, Beijing
Time: The evening of 15 January 2011
Li Yifei (Li) Jia Juanli (Jia)
Li: You have been living and working abroad for so many years, why your painting
style and theme has been the same?
Jia: I was invited to the Academy of Fine Arts in Provence, France by French government
as the visiting artist, where I was the only artist who came from the East. The president
was very friendly to me, he provided me a studio of 80 square meters, with windows
looking into a very beautiful garden. In addition to the study of painting, I had to go to
learn French at French College of Liberal Arts. I had no friends when I first arrived in France,
additionally; I had to study very hard. Even worse, the French contemporary art made me feel
uneasy. The Academy of Fine Arts was a school of avant-garde art, no one there used brushes
and easels, students ‘ works there were essentially installment art and performance art. While
I continued my easel painting, the other students in the art college were using new materials
and multimedia, such as installation, performance etc. much ex expressive my easel painting.
In addition, the language barrier increased my difficulty of studying art. But my easel painting
became an alternative style of the avant-grande trend in the Academy of Fine Arts there,
which led to my isolation in art and loneliness. I will not change for the sake of change I will
not distort my real feeling only for the tension in my painting. My brush is an extension of
my soul; my beating heart is that of an Asian woman.
Li: How did you survive in Paris? Could you please talk about your early years there?
Jia: Paris is a great stage of the world with the most updated information of art;
meanwhile, it has the all-embracing character. As an artist, Paris is the water and I am
fish swimming in the water. Thus, I moved away from Provence, the hometown of
Cezanne, the quiet city with many beautiful memories of mine, went to Paris alone. I knew
nobody and had no friends there; I could not turn to anyone for help. I lived in a strange
environment of the mixture of coldness and charm. In order to survive, I had to sell many
good paintings of mine at very low prices. I began to have solo exhibitions in various
cities in France in 1998. The reasons were simple, I had to survive and I wanted French
galleries to know me and to accept me. I remembered, there were only four visitors
at my first exhibition in Paris, and they were all my friends.
Li: The new contemporary art around you did not have an impact on you?
Jia: Yes, of course it did, and it influenced me greatly. However, not only it failed to change
the direction of my exploration in art, on the contrary, it strengthened my belief of my
own painting style. This was not a guess facing the unknown; it was my own choice
after I had fully understood contemporary art, this was a decision. Different from
Provence, Paris is a city where modern art and classical art co-exist. Now I think
Paris is the outstating capital of art in the world, it is a city tolerates all in art,
and it is an international stage of art.
We could see new works of art almost every day, modern art, classical art, and
contemporary art cannot replace each other. I would go to see all kinds of art
exhibitions after I took a break from working in my studio, trying to be inspired by
that art, and to adjust my concept of painting by absorbing them. I have been to many
countries, I never refuse those newest and most contemporary methods of expression.
Li: You always focus on this kind of subject, was it because some sort of complex in
Jia: I had a lot to do with my mother’s family background. My grandfather was a big
collector; he would change the hanging paintings and the display of art items at home
according to the season. I often listened to my mother’s stories about our family, and
those relatives. Those women portraits I painted were actually their images in my mind.
Later, I painted gardens which were related to the novels I read, I enjoy this kind of fantasy,
so I paint them. Floating on the clouds, the women in the garden were not worldly ladies.
Later on when I was in Beijing, I lived close to Forbidden City, so gardens I often went
there. I liked to see plant, furnishings, objects of which were familiar to me that I was
able to detect slight changes there in the Forbidden City. At that time I could not afford
to buy a camera; I had to reply on sketches. I especially liked the early morning or
raining days and snowing days, I would like to go alone to enjoy Forbidden City in
quietness. Wandering among those ancient buildings, it made me think of what my mother
told me, the ponds and tall screens, so my fantasy and reality mixed together. The I began
to paint the courtyards in the palace. The place I lived was very small, was a rectangle room
two meter long, so I had to paint small paintings. Living abroad, I missed more and more
my Chinese cultural background; I felt it was great. Looking back, the people who
influenced me the most was my mother.
Li: There were shades of Chagall in your early works. How did you change your style to
find your own direction in art?
Jia: Yes, one can see Chagall’s influence in my thesis painting. Then I found that it was the
dream of the western people. The The feel of the Western people was beautiful and
expressive, but beauty of the eastern people was connotative and subtle. I like to read
during my childhood, I liked the fairy tales of both China and western countries. Painterly
images appeared in my heart and they stimulated me to catch them with my oil
painting brush, whenever I had read those alive stories. Fortunately, I saw the works of
Chagall. This kind of light, loose, free, quiet, with a dreamy state of mind at the time the
world, especially close to my feelings, I began to dream like the Chagall also brought
freedom to his own painting. But soon, I found that the Chagall dream was his own
dream, the dream of the West,and I should have my own dreams, the dreams with
oriented colors. At that time, I loved the books of Su Tong, Jia Pinwa, Mark Twain,
Milan Kundera, Marquez, and other writers, I feel I should be bold to depict my inner
dreams. Therefore I started to work on “my dream garden” and “portrait” series. I began
to really enter into my own state of mind.
Li: In addition to painting, you still have a lot of work on paper or silk.
Jia: I really like traditional Chinese paintings, especially the Song Dynasty paintings.
I got in touch with many original works when I was at the Central Academy of Fine
Arts. I had to rush to see the Song paintings whenever the Museum of Forbidden City
exhibited those treasures. I always read them slowly, and that process made me
very excited. Now I wanted to catch the sense of oriental silk and flavor. Perhaps
this was because my father and my grandfather were in business of silk. I also
travelled on the Silk Road a few times because they had a sense of holiness, so I wanted
to fuse the spirit of the emptiness of the East and soul of Silk Road. I have sought the sense
of refinement, softness, and smooth.
Li: Recently, your works were mostly in gray tone, was that the result of your
Jia: The grayish tonality is one of my favourite colors, because it is mysterious, solemn
and subtitle. A single world of “gray” cannot define thousands and thousands different
grays. I painted many Buddha images in gray tone as early as in 1993. But I thought
they were not what I wanted. Later in Paris, what I absorbed was the essence of the
western cultural. As an artist with my root in China, the experience in Paris made me
miss the profound Chinese traditional culture. Chinese ink had rich variations in
tonality, Chinese poems seemed like flowing water and flouting clouds and a red seal
on the painting came from classical culture of China. I have to approach Chinese
traditional art with my heart, not just for the likeness of its format. I began to
reorganize my visual language in oil painting, I tried to make the subtle variation of
black, white and gray sing in my painting, I explored the sense of silk and the limit of
black, white and gray. Meanwhile, I tried to have a little bit of red color. Maybe this little
bit of red was the mark that broke the cold “gray” color, just like a sudden flash would
appeared in one’s lonely life.
Jia Juanli – a Painter of Mild Feminism
Jia Juanli stated, “A lot of people asked me the same question why there’re no men
in my painting. My reply to that is because I am more acquainted with women, “ The
quotation above reminds me of some lines suggested by Mexican female painter. Frida
Kahlo, “I painted myself because I am so often alone and because I am the subject I
Why does Jia Juanli paint women only? Among famous modern Chinese artists,
compared with the overall majority of make artist, their female counterparts stand
for the minority. This is a realistic picture of Chinese patriarchal society.
Jia Juanli’s mild feminist paintings show first the indirectnes and the subtlety of
representation. She is conscious enough to exclude the male as her subject matters
or objects, and focuses on the female instead, and that is her own peaceful demonstration
against the patriarchal society. From appearance, Jia Juanli’s peaceful demonstration
looks like a compromise, because what the Belgian feminist Luce Irigaray pointed out,
“As the female, the society would not want to hear their scream, it wants them to
remain silent to whatever they experienced. Their feelings, therefore, have been
transformed into the spiritual and character syndromes, such as taciturnity.
“Nevertheless, Jia Juanli’s mild feminist representation just dwell in such taciturnity.
Even though Ji Juanli only paint women, nudes seldom appear in her paintings. No
matter the princesses or ladies they’re all dressed in long skirts which even cover
their insteps. The female nudes in the Western fine art have always been the symbol
of the ruling status in the patriarchal society. One of the famous modern feminist
painters, Judy Chicago thinks that if a female artist try to do painting and deal
paintings as how male artist do, if she accepts the rules which are controlled and
served for the make, her paintings will never be comprehended correctly.
Jia Juanli knows women well, and she paints women. She knows herself best that’s she
paints herself, paints her transformed ego. Jia Juanli’s touching empathy is first benefited
from her mother’s dining table stories, the past legends of the great family, and then from
the character’s experiences written in the novels.
Jia Juanli’s art practice can be summed up by one of Luce Irigaray’s quotes, “ By
destroying the painting rules of male society, women can restart to find themselves
and to authenticate their female identity, thus they can find their painting language,
and grow up on the bae of a true ego.”