Six questions for
Olivia Jia

Tique asks six questions to an artist about their work and inspiration.
This week: Olivia Jia.

Artist Olivia Jia
Lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA

How do you describe your own art practice?

Although I am rarely pictured within, my paintings are ultimately psychological self-portraits. I attempt to depict my own subconscious, that space where different pieces of information and history collide to form my sense of self.
To this end, I paint fictional workspaces, desks, archival spaces, documents, and books as metaphors for the mind. They are usually rendered in a nocturnal palette. Night feels like the time when the subconscious is most active, when we are alone with ourselves, and maybe a good book. These constructed still lifes act as a kind of architecture, a memory palace to contain sources and images from varying parts of my life.
I keep an archive of images that interest me. I reference everything from cell phone photographs, museum displays, family albums, historical artwork and documents, found images that resonate with dreams or memories, and so forth. I give myself permission to reference a broad and ever-expanding set of sources—these are paintings of my brain and my subject position, so anything that enters it feels like fair game. I am interested in the way that images and subjects can form poetic relationships, both formally and in terms of content and references. Things from disparate sources reflect, echo, and resemble each other, or form dialogues across time and space.

Which question or theme is central in your work?

How do I define the parameters of my personal history and cultural context within a diasporic experience?
When your life is defined by migration, history and culture are inherently unstable. Ever since I was old enough to form memories, I have had an understanding that we live in a world of stories that often conflict depending on who is speaking. When I was younger, being a second-generation immigrant to the United States was a source of frustration and social anxiety. I didn’t have a cultural community or anyone who shared my experience. It felt like being unmoored. Yet as an adult, it now feels really liberating. I think it makes me more empathetic and more critical.
For my practice, this very instability of historical narrative, identity, and cultural context isn’t a negative issue, but rather grounds for invention and self-determination. As my work is about my own life and my own psychology, I often engage with my family’s history as immigrants from China. Yet the central questions and issues of my practice aren’t really about the particularities of place. I think and hope I point to issues relevant to a broad experience of diaspora.

What was your first experience with art?

A framed print of Claude Monet’s Le Déjeuner (1873) was the only piece of art hanging up in my parents’ house when I was little. Someone gave it to my dad. It’s the kind of print you buy in a museum gift shop. As time passed, the ink faded into a sun-bleached light blue. I’ve never really cared for Monet, but to watch one image quite literally change into another—with no intervention except time and light—it’s magic. There was something bizarre and alchemical about watching this canonical image disintegrate over a short span of years, this quick breakdown for a quick reproduction. It was like a microcosm of the real effects of time upon historical artifacts, or upon the narrative of history itself.

What is your greatest source of inspiration?

I have a background in arts writing, and so literature and writing is a way that I work through ideas about my own art and other artists. I find inspiration in authors who deconstruct narrative formats and reinvent them. I’m perpetually trying to finish reading Moby Dick. It’s my white whale! I love introspective, psychological, rambling, and existential narratives. I love the constant folding of references and images and observations. One of my favorite authors is Italo Calvino, whose work is so self-referential without becoming self-aggrandizing. I love the sense of wonder and surprise in his writing. If on a winter’s night a traveler is a favorite—alongside Invisible Cities and The Nonexistent Knight and the Cloven Viscount.
I think of inventive narrative structures in literature as a metaphor for painting—how can I imply relationships between images and the contexts they carry through formal choices like color, light, and composition? The book is a recurring motif in my work. I find it so seductive because it holds so much by nature of its composition—the implication of a narrative, a before and after, a structure that binds ideas together, a thing that can be tucked away, forgotten, then opened to again reveal its secrets.

What do you need in order to create your work?

I burn through reference images quickly, so I need the time and opportunity to add to my archive. I always collect a lot of material when I visit my family in Shanghai, from museums but also from my grandmother’s photo albums and the stuff she keeps around the house, but I haven’t been able to make the trip since 2018 due to Covid-19 travel restrictions. I overcome this by relying on memories and stories, and finding images online or in books that allow me to construct similar images to what I imagine exists, or existed. Maybe in the tension between an array of found images, some specific emotion or dream or memory can be evoked. Sometimes I find photographs from a previous trip, and really want to kick myself for not taking pictures of the same site from a different angle, or not documenting every window in a garden.
These are problems that pertain to reference images from other trips, places, museums, libraries, etc. both near and far. Trips to see family overseas are just a heightened example because the opportunities to travel there are so limited.

What work or artist has most recently surprised you?

James Miller’s solo show daemon at Nicelle Beauchene blew my mind. The work seems made of aerosolized paints that dust across the canvas. The resultant abstractions are records of their own making. There’s an x-ray-like quality. Every action that Miller takes is visible. The paintings resemble archival documents, film strips, dark room chemistry, things on the verge of dissolution or becoming (it’s anybody’s guess), a kind of ur-space, both womblike and cerebral.
In a very different way, I was recently surprised by Miko Veldkamp’s work. We shared a booth recently at the Armory Show with Workplace, the gallery that represents us both. I have known and liked Miko’s work for two years, but based on aesthetic differences, I assumed our practices were very different. Once our paintings were hanging side by side, I was really shocked to discover so many shared veins that run through our paintings—narrative, diaspora, dreamscapes, psychology, history, and family, among many more. It was extra special to revisit and revise my own relationship with Miko’s paintings.

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