“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.
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.