We live in a time when the idea of sociability is a fraught one. We’ve learned new phrases like ‘social distancing’ and ‘lockdown’, and, for the majority of us, experienced, in some way, the reality of what they mean. We’ve learned that other people’s bodies are potential toxic threats. And we’re being trained to avoid them. It’s in this context that Zhu Jia’s latest series of paintings, recording social encounters in London and on his travels outside his native China, arrive.
Today, as we look at his renderings of sunbathers, loungers, picnickers and chatterers it almost seems as if they are records of another time. And indeed they are, having been, in the main, executed during the three years prior to the age of the virus. But time and circumstance have a habit of changing the way in which we read words, images and things. And much of Zhu Jia’s work, from early videos such as Forever (1994), has been about trying to keep up.
Perhaps that’s why the dripping paint in Hello London 2 (2018), suggesting a rapidity of execution, makes us feel as if the artist is trying to capture something that is already slipping away. A memory threatening to become as blank as the empty canvas that makes up the lower part of the painting, which depicts the artist strolling behind one of London’s red buses, presumably to meet fellow artists Christian Marclay and Isaac Julien, pictured in the foreground, already engaged in deep conversation, while a multi-ethnic crowd passes by. Zhu Jia offers us a sideways glance. He’s not yet a part of the conversation, and neither are we. Both the artist and the viewer stuck on the outside. Moreover, we’re left wondering whether or not the London Zhu Jia is rushing to greet is constituted by the place, or the people who live there: his friends. Indeed, in this work, the London made up of red buses, banks, food stores and Georgian architecture seems little more than a stage set for the principal figures, who, outlined in white, look as if they have been collaged in.
This sensation is further heightened in the diptych Scenery Near Bilbao (2018), in which the ‘scenery’ is a sketchy beach and strip of blue, with the flowing metal and concrete of Frank Gehry’s iconic Guggenheim Museum a footnote in the distance, sent to the top lefthand corner of the painting, almost out of sight. The real ‘scenery’ is the dominant figures of Zhu Jia, with his back to us, smiling, sitting on the sand, and fellow artist Zhou Teihai staring down at his longtime friend. At first glance it’s the only time the artist seems fully engaged with another figure in this series of works, and yet the fact that each of the subjects in the painting is represented on a separate canvas, and that the watery blues of the sea and muddy yellows of the sand don’t quite match up, suggest that the scene is constructed, perhaps even performed, and that each character, despite an apparently shared moment, remains resolutely in their own space.
Collectively, Zhu Jia’s new works offer a spectrum of social encounters in which the artist is always present and always, to varying degrees, on the fringe. Not quite actually there. For all the fact that these works a realistically rendered as if they were episodes from the artist’s daily life. In The Spring and the Sunbeam (2019) he’s on a bench, in the background, staring out into the distance and seemingly ignorant of the painting’s ostensible subject – a pair of female sunbathers whispering to each other on a blanket as they tan their backs – even if the evidence of the time he spent painting them tells us he was surely not. It’s in creating such subtle moments of confusion or uncertainty that Zhu Jia excels.
In Spray Fountain (2020) the artist is pictured taking a photograph of a classical fountain, shooting out jets of water inside a formal park. The central figures of the fountain’s statuary, however, are misaligned. Clearly collaged in from more than one perspective. We see a representation of the photograph of the fountain superimposed on the fountain. Although it’s unclear if that’s the photograph the artist is taking in the painting. (It’s perspectivally unlikely.) Indeed, it’s generally unclear where the ‘truth’ in this painting lies. The classical figures that make up the fountain start to look fake (a pretentious echo of a style that evolved in Greece and Rome rather than the London park in which the painting was set), the painting is of a photograph, and of the artist revealing his tricks (related to the videowork Zero (2012), in which the female protagonist wanders in and out of various stage sets and artificial scenes). And the whole thing is a stage set for an aggravated selfie, a demonstration of the artist’s presence (in more than one way) rather than of a portrait of a fountain at all. Our primary connection in all these works is with him.
At the picnics in Summer Dinner (2018) and Summer Evening (2019) he stares out at us from the background or stands, arms folded, gazing into an empty patch of grass, while his friends (largely members of the artworld) laugh and chatter, engaged fully in paying attention to whatever it is their neighbours are saying. His poses are loosely reminiscent of the early photographic series My Room (1994), in which the artist’s younger self is pictured, dressed formally in a suit, looking by turns earnest and thoughtful while ‘trying out’ the beds, tables and chairs (presumably also imagining the characters and lifestyles they suggest) in a Beijing furniture store. The series is weirdly reminiscent of another, almost contemporary, depiction of the fantasies and alienation brought about by the onset of capitalism – Bret Easton Ellis’s novel American Psycho (1991): ‘there is an idea of a Patrick Bateman,’ the novel’s central character says of himself, ‘some kind of abstraction, but there is no real me, only an entity, something illusory, and though I can hide my cold gaze and you can shake my hand and feel flesh gripping yours and maybe you can even sense our lifestyles are probably comparable: I simply am not there.’ Though the scenery has changed and the characters too, there’s an ongoing sense in these new paintings that Zhu Jia is still trying to make himself present, so assert an ‘I’.
In a way, the artist’s position in all this fits the French writer Albert Camus’s description of Mersault, the central character in his celebrated 1942 novel The Outsider: ‘In a sense he is an outsider in the society in which he lives, on the outskirts of life, solitary and sensual.’ And there’s no doubt that Zhu Jia has an extremely sensual approach to painting, capturing the light, for example, as it bounces off flesh, the pinkish hue of the onset of sunburn, or the lush greens of London’s gardens, both private and public, and seemingly always verdant however grey the skies. There’s always a sense of alienation, that the artist is a stranger in a strange land, whether it comes about as a result of anxiety caused by the invisible barriers of language and culture, or, more fundamentally that Zhu Jia’s true language is visual (as demonstrated by his painting) rather than verbal is something about which we are left to guess. And yet there’s also a sense of optimism here. Despite the sense of awkwardness and alienation, painting after painting, picnic after picnic, conversation after conversation, Zhu Jia continues to turn up.
During the eighteenth century, in Britain, a particular genre of painting evolved: the ‘conversation piece’. Such paintings, a form of informal group portraiture, depicted families or genteel society engaged in discussion – perhaps about science, art, politics or the social scene in general, only the props and scenery the surround them, or your knowledge of the people depicted give you clues as to that. As a viewer, you were being invited to be a part of a private moment, a private space, a guest granted entry into an exclusive members’ club, where great matters were being discussed over a picnic or a cup of tea. And yet you were always excluded, outside the frame of discourse. Literally. You were being invited into discussion in which you were mute. An especially British (and often class-based) form of ‘generosity’. Zhu Jia’s current paintings, the majority painted in London, add a new twist to this with the artist as excluded as the viewer, glancing at us, as if in solidarity, inviting us to be present too, all the while knowing that we remain outside. Though, that’s not to say that the artist knew of, or was influenced by this genre. More that some aspects of sociability, despite circumstances and appearances, never change. Or that Zhu Jia fits his current home, London, better than he thinks.