Carnival: Paintings and Installations by He Jia

Severe Hypoxia, 2009, Oil on Canvas 180 x 250 cm. Image: Courtesy of Art Seasons Gallery

There is no easy, harmonious blend in the overtly bright and exaggerated portraits in Yunnan-born artist He Jia’s works – headless bikini-clad figures, larger-than-life flora and fauna and traditional Chinese masks just to name a few – but therein lies a complicated and often contradictory statement on contemporary culture. Much has been written about the antagonism between local culture and global culture, the former loosely defined as an entity that clings to tradition, convention and rootedness in any particular time and space. In contrast, global culture broadly encompasses what local culture deigns to reject: cultural universalism, the hyper-real, the celebration of pastiche and the media-driven proliferation of signs and symbols.

Presenting his latest series of monumental works dating from 2007, He Jia creates his art in the era of China’s diluted socialist policies and capitalist economy; it is the rampant consumerism that has transformed China’s economy amid potentially conflicting ideologies and conservative Chinese customs that inspires his paintings. In a first solo exhibition named Carnival at the Art Seasons gallery in Singapore, it becomes apparent that He Jia’s works have less to do with probing the assimilation and the reconciliation of Western cultural icons with Far-Eastern Chinese traditions but is instead almost entirely concerned with the disorientation and indulgence that globalization affords and the accompanying vices that have arisen out of rapid economic reforms and unprecedented social change. He Jia portrays the influx of influences as a visual feast that incorporates disparate and unrelated signs and symbols of both local and global cultures.

At times grotesque and kitsch-loving, Carnival is in many ways, visual anarchy personified: an explosion of garish colors and a surrealistic disarray of inanimate and animate objects collapsing into each other characterize He’s works in this exhibition. They are not reticent works with a brooding presence but rather an over-compensated attempt at compressing all that defines 21st century China. Understatements appear to have no place in Carnival, whose namesake itself suggests the active suspension of belief within a contained but mesmerizing space of enchanting entertainment and dream-like spaces. He Jia’s works impact viewers by their sheer size – the canvases range from 2 – 9 metres long – and amplify the dizzying experience of being caught in a kaleidoscopic world (mostly consisting of primary colors of blue, red, green, and yellow) that has no identifiable beginning and end. Symbols of global and local (traditional Chinese) culture culled from both mainstream media and collective, historical memory appear in He Jia’s array of works.

Fire Eye'd Jingjing, 2010, Oil on Canvas 200 x 245 cm. Image: Courtesy of Art Seasons Gallery

In Fire Eye’d Jing Jing (2007), Chinese (or Beijing) opera is utilized as a trope of an established Chinese theatrical tradition. A masked performer in full theatrical garb is captured mid-pose, his flags (theatrical props) fanning out diagonally in a way that erases any sense of spatiality. Yet half of the composition is dominated by a female Chinese woman whose dramatic eye-makeup is partially completed, possibly in preparation of an upcoming performance, or is simply a female figure who has embraced the global trends of beauty. For the woman as opera performer, He Jia unveils what is typically unseen: the arduous make-up process that goes into each operatic performance, but embeds a current of sensuality in the exposed neck and shoulders of the woman.

Such similar titillating images – found in the form of bikini-clad, headless women amidst the enduring symbols of Chinese opera – return in Wow Yeah Yeah Yeah (2007) and Farewell my Concubine (2010), the latter appearing to be a reference to the Chen Kaige’s 1993 film that propelled post-cultural revolution China into world cinema. Just like Chen’s film, He’s Farewell my Concubine is vividly intense, exploring ideas of sexuality, addiction and the paradoxes of globalization to which there appear to be no solutions.

Farewell My Concubine , 2010, Oil on Canvas 200 x 317 cm. Image: Courtesy of Art Aeasons gallery

While a heightened sense of sexuality is certainly present, the mesh of faceless bodies, tattoos and heavily painted masks add to the intrigue of what lies beneath. He Jia’s paintings in fact, disclose nothing beyond their dazzling colors. A calculated amount of evasion seems present, just as the T-shirt-clad jester in Grimace Koo No. 2 (2010) teases us with his insanely wide-grin and partially-covered face.

Grimace Koo No. 2, 2010, Oil on Canvas 200 x 318 cm. Image: Courtesy of Art Seasons Gallery

Co-sponsored by The Museum of Contemporary Chinese Art (also known as “The Mausoleum”) in Singapore, Carnival is He Jia’s first solo exhibition in Singapore and will run at the Singapore Art Seasons Gallery until 12 September 2010.

He Jia’s paintings are in the collection of Rolex Geneva Foundation in Switzerland, Robert Chaney Foundation in the US, White Rabbit Gallery in Australia, Duolun Museum in Shanghai, and The Museum of Contemporary Chinese Art in Singapore. He currently lives and works in Beijing.