Interview on 14th August 2015 at his home, Xiaoxitian
The temperature outside is about 35 degrees Celsius, but the scorching heat doesn't bother us; we're at Jiamin's one-piece apartment, sat just next to the easel and the big window; a few steps further into the apartment, Marine is making a cake for their friend'; Panda the cat is stretching lazily nearby on the floor; we're listening to very delicate French style contemporary piano music.
JF: I know you're a big fan of films and photography, do you think these media influence your painting in some way?
HJM: I haven't thought about that. Apart from film and photography, I am also interested in literature and music, and maybe they have an even deeper influence on me, because when I paint I always listen to music. Film is film, photography is photography. I think those are art forms in themselves. I have a plan to make films perhaps. I never thought about taking photos seriously, I don't think I understand photography well yet. It seems everyone can do that, whereas painting is more limited, at least I think so. I like to make art with having this limitation in mind.
JF: Do you think the paintings are also a sort of diary for you or totally the opposite?
HJM: No, not a diary I think. I'd thought about making series of some moments, but you have to paint fast. I paint with oil paint, before I also did some calligraphy, I tried acrylic, but I never tried watercolours. For a diary it would be better to use watercolours or drawing. Since I'm now still more interested in colours and I enjoy textures it takes more time for me to paint.
JF: How long does it take you to finish one painting?
HJM: It's really hard to say, because sometimes I work and rework the same painting for long time. Sometimes I don't do anything or wait until I feel the painting is finished, until it has convinced me by itself that it is. It is hard to decide when to stop. I don't think there is this problem with writing a diary.
JF: What about the commissioned work you've done, such as book covers, which in your case are usually paintings turned into a digitally editable piece of work, do you take it seriously? Do you like this kind of work?
HJM: I don't think it's anything particular. I love reading. Doing this work actually just gives me more reasons to read, despite the fact I don't necessarily have to, but I decide to read the books before. So I take my time. I don't think I take design same way like professional designers do. For me designing a cover may be more a reflection of my thoughts or feelings, I design a cover I might like myself.
JF: When did you start drawing or painting?
HJM: As long as I can remember I liked to draw. It was very spontaneous and natural for me. My parents told me also I liked to draw with a piece of chalk, which I have no recollection of, I was too small.
JF: Then you continued on your own?
HJM: I attended some classes for primary kids where we learned some basic techniques, but I can't remember what my teacher told me. I just remember I enjoyed, like every kid, staying and painting together, same things or different than others. I couldn't experience this again later in my life because I never went to an art school. I hold onto these good memories.
JF: Did you have any particular picture you liked to draw and redraw?
HJM: I think my parents lost a big amount of my drawings when my family moved apartments, but I found a drawing of a small cat I probably did in kindergarten. I like cats and I realized recently that I paint them a lot. I don't think it's an obsession, it's more like the spirit somehow fits the painting. Sometimes the cat might already be in the picture [in the composition], but sometimes when it isn't there I feel some spaces are calling for cat.
JF: Do you think most of your paintings have some stories behind them?
HJM: In the past I tried to invent some stories, but now actually I feel I paint kinds of strong impressions or memories, so I try to remove the trace of invented stories, it may leave more space for the viewers.
JF: I remember seeing one painting, which is almost a direct copy of a photograph, right?
HJM: Well, yes (and no). [pointing to a painting] This one, I visited a friend in France, she's a Vietnamese immigrant, I found this photo in her family album and she told me she didn't know who they [the people in the photo] are, and that this photo [of her father with them] was taken by mistake (her feet and head are out of frame). For me, this matter of chance can be resourceful for art. I especially liked the composition of this photo This painting is almost like a joke, the photo was black and white originally, and both the painting and the photo are partly about my first experience of Europe and I wanted to mix that in. Yes, it is a copy, but I changed to colours and I changed the faces, I painted Marine [HJM's wife] and her brother two times in it, as children and as adults. You see, memory for me is a vague thing, it is quite abstract, it either exists purely in your mind or you write it down (as a diary), we are used to re-imagining everything. Nowadays photos replace your memory, everything is "intruding" each other and interconnecting. In this sense you can also walk into others' memory. That's how I feel: I stole my Vietnamese friend's memory, and yet it's not really her memory, it is her dad's memory, everything is so vague, in this sense I was playing a joke on this. Later, my artist friend from Nicaragua, asked me to participate in his project of Latin-American art so I sent him the photo of this painting, I explained this story - the photo was actually taken in Cuba, when the father of my Vietnamese friend was studying there. That's the only link of this painting with Latin America.
JF: For me your paintings, although they seem quite realistic, they retain a sort of magical reality, they are surreal and dreamy. I remember seeing the mural you did in Lijiang Studio, which is quite vast and the elements of it are painted realistically, but the whole result is quite surreal, diego-rivera'esque.
HJM: Sure. I think surrealism is probably something that attracts people's attention easily, so when I was a kid and I first encountered Western art I got really attracted by Dali's work, despite them being just very small pictures in an art album. They would arouse real excitement and boost my imagination. Later I started getting bored with the same Dali, because I felt like he's repeating himself and his work seemed easy to do. Yet later, when I saw his retrospective in the Centre Pompidou in Paris I somehow regained my respect for him, because his most famous paintings were just a small part of what he really did and they were done in his young age and after that he made other stuff and he was never satisfied with his artistic pursuits. So he influenced me very early and maybe twisted my world's perception. I was a dreamer when I was a kid. When I started painting on my own I didn't think of making surrealist paintings, but it seems to be a basic ground for me.
JF: The type of surrealism in your works I'm talking about is here on this painting, we see rooftops of some old Chinese buildings and the skyline and a naked person on a rooftop watching the landscape, a mountain range.
HJM: People sitting in clothes on roofs would remind us of tourists too much, because I painted a touristy place, so maybe this was the initial motivation. I just had a look at one painting recalling your words about surrealism and to be honest, for me the most surrealist in this painting [a Chinese gazebo, with a cat walking on the wooden barrier and a CCTV camera hanging off the roof] is this camera. And that's actually the fact. That's why maybe my paintings have this sense of surrealism, I think surrealism is sometimes the reality. I think I'm honest to record the reality.
JF: You usually paint at home (small space). Changing the space would have any influence on you? Do you crave it?
HJM: I think I'm very adaptable. In Lijiang studio I had big space and took advantage of it, it was also possible for me to paint a mural. Big space can give you motivation because it's too vast, there's too much emptiness, so it somehow pushes you to fill in the blank. Here (at home) it's already too many things. I think this space also influences the size of my works, here I can't make big paintings. Right now I don't think I care too much, as long as I have some space.
JF: When I see a blank page I am scared of doing anything to it. I'm too scared of the result.
HJM: Well yes, exactly, even a small blank canvas at first point always scares me before I start, but then once you start there's no return.
JF: When you start a painting, do you have an actual idea, a scheme, a sketch, which you stick to?
HJM: I change the idea a lot. I think the final result is quite different than I'd originally thought. That has to do with the space, too, once you mark some points in the space you change it, everything has to speak for itself, the relations change.
JF: That's why I think that many of your paintings are similar to the aesthetics of photography. Which brings us to the beginning of this conversation. What do you think about selling artwork? How do you feel about it?
HJM: I haven't sold much, I sold some smaller pieces to people who appreciate my work. There were others who wanted to buy but I didn't feel like selling it yet, so I didn't. I would like to be selling my paintings. I don't think I owe them as long as I finish them - they're there. I possess too many things, you can't have so many things (books etc) at the same time. Since I am quite productive in painting I should get rid of the work to empty the space. That's my more personal approach to it, I don't think about the market. It's not my business. Of course, I wish people who really appreciate it had it.
JF: So you're not emotionally attached to your paintings?
HJM: I generally think that being attached to objects is not a good idea, the best would be to sell or give away things, when you're moving for example, because you know that people who take them somehow need them. Same with paintings, if at some point I sell a big amount of my paintings I will be happy.
JF: What about exhibitions?
HJM: I didn't have many, the recent one was at my friend's house. I never had any solo exhibitions, I'm working on it though. A Shanghai gallery contacted me but I've been too lazy and postponing it, partly because I need to make myself convinced that I see the links between those paintings. I want to have an exhibition of my own for real instead of based on curator's choices. I know I am being very unpractical here.
JF: One could say memories and intangible thoughts become real objects through your paintings, a little bit like furniture, which you can then get rid of.
HJM: Yeah, sometimes perhaps it's not that good to have that many memories. I used to recall my dreams, but then I realized I already have so many thoughts and memories and they seem vague and dreamy enough already. It's better to keep more space for your current and future life.
JF: What do you think about artists who make repetitious paintings, like David Hockney for instance.
HJM: Sometimes it is necessary, it may help you mature or become perfect. I do have a lot of respect for DH, although maybe he's made too much. If you look at traditional Chinese artists they paint the same subjects time and time again, to an untrained eye you will perceive all the landscapes or birds as similar. Back then the concept of painting was different. Nowadays you repeat a painting for market reasons, before it was a kind of meditation. Painting is not meditation for me.
JF: Why do you paint then?
HJM: First of all I have always been attracted by images. And since I was little I always knew that I have a talent for painting. Other media than paint don't give me the satisfaction. To me, painting is similar to cooking. The good thing about those two is that once you start you don't want to stop, you know you have to pay attention, no matter what. If you stop you know a lot of material (whether paint or food) will go to waste. I am a person who doesn't like to waste things. Painting as an art form gives me limitations which are necessary for my art creation. Also, as I said before, I knew I had a talent for painting, and I don't want to waste this talent. Maybe that's the reason why I paint.
Hu Jiamin (胡嘉岷) comes from Yichang but currently lives in Beijing. Belongs to the so-called “八零后” generation (born in the eighties), a graduate in science, he is perpetually falling in love with art; since young age Jiamin has developed an inveterate fondness of cats, cinema, photography, literature and music. He attends different kinds of art and cultural events around the city quite often to widen and strengthen his knowledge and criticism on art. Jiamin paints mostly on canvases and has made a few mural paintings before; he developed a style of his own which I would describe as “magical reality”.
More artwork by Hu Jiamin:
2012-2015 paintings: http://www.douban.com/photos/album/1616776306/
2009-2011 paintings: http://www.douban.com/photos/album/15222348/
the Lashihai murals at Lijiang Studio: www.douban.com/photos/album/36380762/
Book covers designed by HJM: