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Ding Yi: Ivory Black at ShanghArt

“Grids punctured with crosses in varying patterns” is perhaps the best—and admittedly, the most simplistic—way of summing up Ding Yi’s oeuvre. Ivory Black at the ShanghArt gallery is his latest iteration of these basic, severely geometric forms, in varying shades of blue, black, and white hues, distinguished only by date and serial number. Like an astronomer’s chart of the night sky, Ding’s gridded, ordered forms lend a semblance of artificial order to infinite black space as the plus and X marks pulse and shimmer with subtly placed colored accents on a dark background. Yet they offer no central focal point that draws the eye; it just isn’t possible to look at the flattened layers of vivid colors and patterns and pick out a distinguishing mark to begin a detailed examination of the canvas. Without a visual anchor, viewers can only drift within the spaces in which grid and cross intermingle, uncomfortably caught between two- and three-dimensional spaces where boundaries between pictorial depth and surface flatness begin to get fuzzy.

Ding Yi. Appearance of Crosses-12, 2013; acrylic on canvas; 120 cm x 140 cm. Photo: Courtesy of the Artist and ShanghArt gallery Singapore.

Ding Yi. Appearance of Crosses-12, 2013; acrylic on canvas; 120 x 140 cm. Courtesy of the Artist and ShanghArt Gallery Singapore.

The masterful, intricate complexity of the Appearance of Crosses (2014) series is impressive and unsurprising; after all, Ding’s unswerving commitment to rational abstraction began nearly thirty years ago, in the years of socio-political upheaval following China’s Cultural Revolution (1966–76). Like many artists of that time, Ding’s earliest venture into abstraction was a personal act of rebellion against the earthy tones and glib smoothness of Russian socialist realism, a figurative style that had heavily influenced the propagandistic art of the revolution. Looking instead to the Post-Impressionists, the Abstract Expressionists, and the De Stijl movement, Ding painted Taboo (1986) out of a limited palette of muted tones and bold, long brushstrokes depicting a dynamic combination of marks, its anxious, forceful energy seeming to mirror the turmoil of state and self in the aftermath of the revolution. Just two years later, he had created the first of his so-called “cross paintings,” a template of abstraction that he would follow for the next three decades as the contemporary Chinese art world made its own great leap forward.

Ding Yi. Taboo, 1986; 84 cm x 84 cm.

Ding Yi. Taboo, 1986; 84 x 84 cm.

The persistent influence of abstract modern art on Ding’s oeuvre has nonetheless inevitably led to attempts to analyze the discursive underpinnings of his works through the major modes of critical inquiry in Western art history. It could, of course, be argued that Ding’s adherence to the grid structure—emblematic of the modernist ambition in the visual arts—is precisely because it is anti-narrative and anti-developmental[1], or that his prolific use of crosses is in fact a mass of codified signs charged with symbolic and religious value across cultures, left for the viewer to ascribe meaning to them.[2]

Ding Yi. Appearance of Crosses-5, 2009; acrylic on finished fabric; 200 cm x 80 cm.

Ding Yi. Appearance of Crosses-5, 2009; acrylic on finished fabric; 200 x 80 cm.

But Ding himself shies away from these interpretive frameworks of his art, insisting that Appearance of Crosses is “just meaningless crosses and nothing more, [where] the symbols are used to inhibit the inert meanings from experience,” although he acknowledges the element of spirituality inherent in their creation. If anything, he would rather assert a more innocuous and direct connection to Shanghai, the city he lives and works in; the bright, criss-crossing colors of the Appearances of Crosses series (1991–93) are loosely reminiscent of the entire grid-planned city and its neon lights at night. From the beginning, his concern had been to develop a visual language that was less complicated and more impartial and rational than the emotionally charged works of Abstract Expressionism, and he did so by prioritizing the artistic process, leaving the endpoint almost an afterthought.

Ding Yi. Appearance of Crosses-3, 1991; acrylic on canvas; 140 cm x 180 cm.

Ding Yi. Appearance of Crosses-3, 1991; acrylic on canvas; 140 x 180 cm.

Emptied of preconceptions and ascribed meaning, Ding’s aspiration to simplicity is almost akin to entering a meditative state, a conscious turning away from reality that is not unlike the metaphysical practice of Chinese calligraphy or traditional craftsmanship. Conscious of the different moods that the combination of colors would evoke, Ding superimposes layer upon layer of the motifs, forming elaborate patterns that resemble the flat surfaces of traditional cloth weaves, fields of green and yellow, or even the pixelated grids of digital art. The repetitive motion of adding these motifs, once serving to counter the ideological aspects of art production, seems to provide through line and color an experience that transcends sensory perception.

Ding Yi. Appearance of Crosses-13, 2013; acrylic on canvas; 140 cm x 200 cm. Photo: Courtesy of the Artist and ShanghArt gallery Singapore.

Ding Yi. Appearance of Crosses-13, 2013; acrylic on canvas; 140 x 200 cm. Courtesy of the Artist and ShanghArt Gallery Singapore.

Or perhaps that really is the point: Stripped of intellectual backwash, Ding’s canvases are simply cleverly interwoven threads of pure color, a sublime configuration of grids and crosses in which subject and object can lose themselves.

Ding Yi: Ivory Black is on view at ShanghArt Gallery at the Gillman Barracks through March 15, 2015.

[1] Rosalind E. Krauss, The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1986). As a static and infinitely repeatable form, the grid can be overlaid, mapped onto, and used to chart shifting terrain, which appears to be what Ding is trying to achieve.

[2] Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1994).

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