Olivia Jia

Olivia Jia (b. 1994, Chicago, IL) is a painter based in Philadelphia, PA. Jia received her BFA from the University of the Arts in Philadelphia in 2017 and attended Yale Norfolk in 2015. She has held solo exhibitions at Margot Samel, New York, NY, and Workplace, London, U.K. Her work has been included in group exhibitions at venues including Nathalie Karg Gallery, New York, NY; Yee Society, Hong Kong; Marginal Utility in Philadelphia, PA; and more.
April 3, 2023
Tell us about your practice, for those who are new to you.
In my paintings, I construct imaginary tableaux that are filled with books and ephemera, often strewn across a fictional rendition of a desk or workspace. The images that are depicted on these pages pull from my collection of source material including, among other things, objects that belong to me or my family, photographs that I take on my phone while walking around, family photographs, and both American and Chinese art history. I play with both formal and poetic relationships between objects across culture and time. I think of my paintings as a space where meaning can be excavated and found, made anew through juxtaposition. They are ultimately psychological self-portraits.
You’ve described your palette as nocturnal – what is the significance of it being nighttime in your work?
I prefer to paint at night, and so my choice in the palette is a self-referential gesture to the moment of a painting’s creation. Beyond that, nighttime is rich with connotations. It is when the subconscious is most active, the time for dreams, of shuffling through the events of the day, of being alone with oneself.
Books seem to come up in your work often – what draws you to this motif? What does it mean to you?
Beyond their function in my work, I’ve always been in love with books. I love the materiality of them, especially when they’re brittle with age. I love the escapism a good narrative can provide. I love collecting books to be read someday, a growing pile. 
The structure of a book inherently holds so much possibility—it can be a container of narrative, an index, a sequence, or a place where knowledge, authority, and history are held. It can be a biography. I love the flexibility of this motif and all of its potential. I use the book as a kind of architecture, a mechanism that fixes disparate sources in relation to each other.
How do you approach sourcing reference materials? What determines whether you pull from personal/familial sources vs. historical ones?
As the child of immigrants, I felt very unmoored for most of my life. I didn’t grow up in an ethnic community and I don’t have a big family. For historical reasons, my family doesn’t have any heirlooms. I used to feel incredibly alienated from the white American culture, narratives, and history that surrounded me, but I didn’t have much of an alternative. Recently, I have been thinking about diaspora as a position of empowerment rather than one of lack. It leaves space for self-determination, to declare the boundaries of my history, and to identify the moments, movements, places, and people that are my lodestones. 
My paintings are the mechanism by which I shape the objects and narratives that inform my being in the world. My paintings are proudly subjective, about my subject position and claiming no territory beyond that. In this project, personal and historical sources have equal weight and exist ready at hand. The line between personal and historical is blurred—references to historical sites or artifacts in museums are often filtered through my photography, and a painted version of a family photo might be significantly altered from its source. Many of my paintings reference images that I find online while searching for something that resembles an artifact from a family story, of which I have no documentation. My selection of references is idiosyncratic and informed by private motivations and anecdotes.
What has been inspiring you lately? It can be anything – an artist, movies, theme, relationships, etc.
I’ve only recently started to remember my dreams and now they are incredibly vivid. There is a frequently recurring theme of absurd architectural spaces that I understand to be my home. I’m trying to get in the habit of keeping a dream journal.
I am also thinking a lot about women surrealists, especially Gertrude Abercrombie and Leonora Carrington.
What’s next for you?
I’m working on a couple of upcoming solo exhibitions to be held later this year and next. In the near future, I’ll be participating in NADA New York in May with Workplace, the gallery which represents me in the U.K. I’m also working on a couple of solo exhibitions to be held later this year and next. Most importantly—I’m hoping to see my grandmother soon.

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