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Cross-Style - A Retrospective Interpretation of Ding Yi's Creative Journey

Author: Carol Lu Yinghua 2020-08-01

The cross, a basic form

In 1988, Ding Yi created his first “Appearance of Crosses”, which marked the beginning of a creative trajectory that continues to this day. Regarding its inception, the artist himself describes it as follows:

My cross images made art more abstract because there is no meaning between the lines. My first cross painting was in red, yellow, and blue; the second a spectrum of seven colors.[ “A Ding Yi Interview by Mathieu Boryseviczin” ed. Tan Guobin, “2013 Art Changsha: Ding Yi”(Changsha: Hunan Fine Arts Publishing House, 2013), p.134]

By "painting like this", Ding Yi means “To paint with a ruler and a ruling pen, so that my paintings are void of all technique. That is to say, there are no brush strokes, nor any exposition of skill in painting”. “I wanted there to be no system to my use of color, to use whatever colors I wanted. My grid structure allowed the display of colors in their original form.”[ Ibid.] Throughout the painting process, Ding Yi paints straight lines, dotted lines, diagonal lines, thin lines, thick lines, line segments, grids, and applies colors with tape, ruling pens, and rulers to "design" paintings that resemble designs for blankets or fabrics. These industrial, hard-edged compositions which resemble prints repeatedly employ the “cross", a symbol of printing, or a variation of it, as if it were a part of a continuous pattern. Drawing with a ruler makes the lines and structures appear neat and orderly, while the principle of reflexive color selection injects randomness and disorder into the works, forming an intrinsic tension between the color and the lines making the works less rigid. Beginning with the painting "Appearance of Crosses I” painted in red, yellow, and blue in 1988, the “Appearance of Crosses" series has continued for 32 years, and has grown from a manifesto-like form of expression to a system of practice that constantly derives from its own principles and methods of production.

After "Appearance of Crosses I”, Ding Yi painted "Appearance of Crosses II” and “Appearance of Crosses III” the same year, the three oil paintings of the same size were all divided into 90 equal parts by a grid. "Appearance of Crosses I” has regular crosses in each grid; "Appearance of Crosses II” implements a seven-color spectrum as its background with only one vertical line in each grid (this is the only time in the artist's career that a vertical line appears); “Appearance of Crosses III” has of three segments of dark colors as its background with dashed crosses across each grid which are cut in half at the middle in a pattern-like manner. These three works are the result of Ding Yi's experimental exploration of "making paintings not look like painting" by "reducing all the painterliness and the so-called techniques to the most basic or insignificant level". By combining painting and design, Ding Yi hopes to "graft the indifference of design into a more expressive painting.”[ Ding Yi, “The Course of Abstraction”, ed. Liu Ding, Carol Yinghua Lu and Su Wei, “Individual Experience: Conversations and Narratives of Contemporary Art Practice in China from 1989 to 2000”(Guangzhou: Lingnan Fine Arts Publishing House, 2013), p.126] In the three earliest instances of "Appearance of Crosses,” the “Crosses” are closer to the object being represented in terms of proportion or effect rather than the formal elements that make up the picture."[ Qian Naijing, “Ding Yi:A Short Essay”, ed. Lü Peng, “Contemporary Artists Series” (Chengdu: Sichuan meishu chubanshe), p.28]

At the time I wanted to paint something with absolutely no metaphor; something without any injection of personal experience.  I wanted to cut the bond between the painting and traditional cultural metaphors and create something completely unfamiliar.  It was simply a horizontal and vertical structure; even the naming of the grid paintings was done by number in the order I created them.  I did all this to ensure that there would be no metaphorical meaning within my works.[ “A Ding Yi Interview by Mathieu Boryseviczin” ed. Tan Guobin, “2013 Art Changsha: Ding Yi”(Changsha: Hunan Fine Arts Publishing House, 2013),  p.138]

Although Ding Yi was still in his third year of Chinese painting at the Shanghai Academy of Fine Arts, he had already developed his own judgment and conviction on how to paint and what kind of artist he should become: “I decided to follow a rational path free from ideology, and stick to being an artist.” This decision was based on what he saw as the dominant tendency in the Chinese art world at that time: Expressionism to vent suffering and Surrealism as a means of riding on the coattails of the academy. Expressionism and Surrealism were in fact the only two artistic techniques widely experimented by Chinese artists in the 1980s in an attempt to break away from the rigid and generalized model of Socialist Realism so prevalent in the previous era. Ding Yi was determined to deviate from the two currents of Expressionism and Surrealism, as well as the system of Chinese painting traditions that he had been exposed to during his academic studies. From this, we can get a sense of the artist's desire to attain a certain purity in his artistic practice at that time the aspiration to attain: a basic form, a self-contained world.

Self-critical language practices

To understand Ding Yi's personal choices at that time, we need to return to the cultural and historical conditions in which he lived, specifically, the Chinese art scene during the 1980s. A rough sketch of the situation would go something like this; the entire social sphere found itself preoccupied with prolonging the ideological emancipation movement that began after the end of the “Cultural Revolution”. As early as the 1920s and 1930s, an atmosphere had already formed during the Western Painting Movement, and in the 1940s after the War of Resistance broke out, the modernist ideological trends that had once been suppressed came into contact with the Western world and the collision of ideas began to take place once again. Some older as well as middle-aged artists, who found themselves had previously been suppressed and persecuted, were eager to rescue their own literary and artistic practices that had undergone the politicized practices of the "17-year" campaign and the "Cultural Revolution”. The artists sought to reactivate the ideas and practices of literary and artistic thought that had been gradually marginalized and shunned after the foundation of the New PRC. Under the veil of "formal emancipation”, the older artists who grew up during and received an art education before the establishment of the PRC especially, made it their ambition to promote artistic autonomy and freedom. At the same time, they sought to fully mobilize the techniques and historical resources of Chinese and Western art to cultivate a field of artistic experimentation in their own practices. They also did not forget to open up a space for artistic discourse, opening up a new time and space for themselves, as well as helping to promote the emergence of a new generation of artistic trendsetters. It was in this context of preparation and facilitation that what we know as "New Wave Art" emerged. The popularized narrative of this historical space and time has adopted the rhetoric of rupture and revolution of the Western avant-garde but has never fully appreciated the common efforts and intertwined realities of several generations in this space and time.

To reinforce a distinguishing quality, "New Wave Art" was given the laurel title of "conceptual renewal" to indicate its affinity with the Western theoretical trends that flooded into China at that time. People were unconsciously constrained by the linear thinking of the theory of evolution, and "conceptual renewal" was seen as more avant-garde and pioneering, and thus closer to the creative tendencies of Western avant-garde art. "Reason" must be humanistic and philosophical, embodying humanistic concern, full of spiritual orientation and social commitment, and with the replacement and transcendence of "formal emancipation" as its signature value. For some time, artists from all over the country, mainly graduates of art academies and young artists who enrolled after the Cultural Revolution, formed art groups, organized exhibitions, and published art manifestos. Later a phenomenon emerged: art became "a word that was juxtaposed with religion and philosophy".[ Quote from Wang Guangyi. Cao Siyu, "Wang Guangyi: Revisiting the Past", Hi Art, November 12, 2015. Available at]

The "concepts" that artists were referring to at this time were not the same as the "concepts" in the "conceptual art" that emerged in Europe and the United States in the 1960s, which aimed to question art itself and the discourses and institutions surrounding it. Rather, the movement encompassed complexity and chaos, with some emphasizing the conceptual shifts that should occur in the understanding of art, others pointing to narrative and storytelling in art, some wishing to highlight the spiritual direction and abstract values of the work; its engagement with cultural issues, while others simply referred to formal breakthroughs in composition. In fact, "conceptual renewal" was a vague slogan that included a wide range of demands and attempts at artistic innovation, with widespread implications and far-reaching repercussions thereafter. One of the most direct manifestations of this is artist Wang Guangyi's idea of "cleaning up humanistic enthusiasm", which he proposed at the "Huangshan Conference" in 1988, together with the sketches of a grid drawn on the leader's statue. By repeating this classical image and "reformatting" it in the form of a grid, Wang Guangyi hoped to dispel the usual politicized readings and projections of this image, in other words, to de-mean and de-ideologize it.

Although it could be argued that Wang Guangyi was one of the beneficiaries of the "’85 New Wave" movement and that the Northern art group of which he was a member was highly visible and discussed at the time, his intuition as an artist made him quickly aware of the ambiguous and uncertain relationship between artistic discourse and production at the time, noting that:

Artists and critics like to discuss art in terms that are meaningful, but extremely broad. At the time, I felt that this was a product of over-amplification of "humanist enthusiasm". In my heart, I want the basis of my work to be grounded in reality, and I think this is the context for my proposal of "purging humanist enthusiasm".[ Ibid.]

The "’85 New Wave" was a transient phenomenon, which burst out nationwide and was soon accompanied by the efforts of some theorists who attempted to theorize and historicize it. The discourse and practice surrounding it were extremely proactive and contributed to the spread of the movement. Under such historical circumstances, we were rewarded with what Yin Shuangxi describes as "A group of rather awkward 'manifestos' on humanism, existentialism, cultural anthropology, and ontology. Written  by a group that was in the process of division, which lead to a group of experimental works that were quite innovative but not memorable.”[ Yin Shuangxi, "Developing Artistic Innovation", “Fine Arts in China”, 1987, Issue. 37, p.1] In this article, published in the September 14, 1987 issue of “China Art Newspaper”, Yin Shuangxi also wrote:

From the perspective of art history, we still find ourselves in the painful whirlpool of introducing, colliding with, and reflecting on[concepts]. Due to the absence of any major breakthroughs in artistic language or actual innovation, we are in a state of undirected, blind exploration, lacking the targeted accumulation for any valid direction. Many people still struggle to express "new concepts” and “the profound”, they are stuck in outdated ways of thinking and visualizing, stuck in their use of outdated formal language, and continue to adhere to the same techniques and materials for years on end. "Cosmic blue," "horizon" and "nude woman and a figure from behind" are becoming a popular style. Some painters have lost the essence of visual art in their reflections on the infinite and mysterious universe.

From 1987 onwards, the tiredness and resistance to the fashionable styles of "New Wave Art" and the reliance on giving or even imposing a certain conceptual expression on the works gave rise to a return to the very nature of art and to the removal of meaning altogether. At first, such a tendency could be detected in the works of artists who were still being presented as "New Wave Art". Take, for example, Wu Shanzhuan's Red Humor series (1987), which is filled with irrelevant phrases from the bulletin boards of everyday life. Regarding this work, Wu Shanzhuan once said: "I tried to express the sense of humor toward the academicization of artists because I believe that the existence of art is not subject to restriction, and its meaning is transparent. Whereas the academic interpretation of an artist's work, however, is usually historical, philosophical, ethical, etc. This leads me to feel strongly that this kind of hollow scholarship, which sends the innate significance of the artwork into deficit, thereby depleting the meaning of an artwork."[ “New Wave Artists III: Wu Shanzhuan”, “Fine Arts in China”, 1987, Issue 40, 5 October 1987, p. 1]

Wang Guangyi's development of Rembrandt's “The Return of the Prodigal Son” into two sets of repeated images (“The Return of Tragic Love”, 1987), or Geng Jianyi, Zhang Peili, and Song Ling's recurrence of the same image and its variations in their compositions (Geng Jianyi's “The Second State”, Zhang Peili's “X?” and Song Ling's “Meaningless Choice?”), were just some of the works that emerged in the same period. All of these works patternize the depicted objects through repetition in order to dissolve the cultural significance they may convey.[ “New Wave Artists IV: 'The Pond Society' in Zhejiang”, “Fine Arts in China”, 1987, No. 45, November 9, 1987, p. 1-2]

Although at the beginning of 1987 there were already people reflecting on the "New Wave", there was not always an agreement between creators and the critics. The above-mentioned works, deprived of pictorial and graphic meaning, remain precisely within the "philosophical", "historical", "ethical" interpretation that their creators were trying to break free from. It was not until the first half of 1988 that the slogan of "purified language" was coined, reinforcing the strong momentum of the previous two years' emphasis on the exploration of visual language autonomy, and the search for artistic language itself was pushed to the forefront where the cultural connotations of the work competed with artistic concepts.[ Meng Luding, "The Process of Purification”, “Fine Arts in China”, 1988, Issue 18, May 2, 1988, p. 1] Between 1987 and 1988, along the lines of the questions posed by the “'85-'86 Art New Wave”, the question of whether to continue to emphasize “conceptual change” and “cultural critical consciousness” or to focus on the self-discipline of visual language became two parallel and conflicting trends.

In April 1988, Ding Yi participated in the “Art Today” exhibition[ From April 22 to 28, 1988, the “Exhibition of Today's Art” was held at the Shanghai Art Museum.] organized by the Shanghai Art Museum. The exhibition featured nearly 40 works by representative abstract artists from Beijing, Shanghai, and Hangzhou, including Meng Luding and Yin Qi from Beijing, Ding Yi, Yu Youhan, Pei Jing, and Xu Hong from Shanghai, and Liu Anping, Tang Song, and Yan Lei from Hangzhou. This is the first group exhibition of pure abstract art in China that crosses geographical boundaries. Gu Liming, a painter who studied in the oil painting department of the Central Academy of Fine Arts, wrote after “Art Today”, "In this exhibition, more works use 'physical material' as a pure form of painting language, and turn the connotations of this linguistic expression into a form of material based aesthetics...the authors are pursuing a language of ‘material based painterliness', ...while others are pursuing a ‘material based conceptualness', that is, for the direct translation of the experiential processes of the physical world through physical materials into a cultural concept which is more universal." In Gu Liming's view, the works in this exhibition are not only different from the tendency to escape from the cultural reality in which they are embedded and build a "utopia" of artistic ideals; they are also different from works that are relieved or cathartic in their religious feelings and personal emotions. It is instead “search for a definite connection and foothold in the linguistic and cultural levels of modern Chinese painting."[ Gu Liming, "Written after the ‘Exhibition of Today’s Art’ exhibition", “China Art News”, 1988, no. 33, August 13, 1988, p. 1]

Among the artists who participated in the exhibition with Ding Yi was Meng Luding, one of the proponents of "purified language" and a graduate of the Central Academy of Fine Arts (founded in 1985 as Studio Four, which taught a variety of modern art as part of its curriculum). Meng Luding's work "Noise" for the exhibition and his acclaimed surrealist work "In the New Era: The Revelation of Adam and Eve", which was exhibited in "The Advancing Chinese Youth Fine Art Exhibition" in 1985, were exhibited in the same exhibition. "Noise" was completely different, in that it used abstract and expressive language on canvas as a synthesis of material practices. This would go on to become the artistic direction that Meng Luding would continue to explore thereafter. Also at this exhibition, Yu Youhan, who Ding Yi regards as the main teacher who introduced him to modern art, exhibited his works from the "Circle" series. On the importance of Yu Youhan's works in Shanghai in the 1980s and for Chinese abstract painting in general, Shanghai artist and critic Zhao Chuan wrote:

Like some aspiring artists of his time, he [Yu Youhan] not only responded to the anxiety so prevalent during that period in the cultural realm about the possibility of whether Chinese thought could fit in with the modern spirit of the West; more importantly, was the balanced structure of his paintings, the small, rounded brushstrokes, and the random drippings are particularly refreshing, as they substantiate the remnants of Soviet realist practices are completely absent. No more artificial brush strokes, textures, or rules for composition cultivated through years of training. This seemingly simple, merely technical change, actually takes its origin in Cézanne, and it marks a significant conceptual breakthrough in the modernity of painting. It was this transition that paved the way for the emergence of a new aesthetic ideal.[ Zhao Chuan, “Yu Youhan and His Students” in “Shanghai chouxiang gushi”(Shanghai Abstract Stories), (Shanghai: Shanghai People’s Fine Arts Publishing House, 2006), p. 44]

In 1989, Ding Yi participated in the "China Modern Art Exhibition" at the National Art Museum of China in Beijing with his works "Appearance of Crosses I" and "Appearance of Crosses III". Shanghai abstract artists and their works, including Zhang Jianjun and his work "Yes, No.96", Yu Youhan and his work "Circle Series", Xu Hong and her work "Wind of the Himalayas", were also exhibited in the West Hall on the third floor of the National Art Museum of China. According to Li Xianting, one of the curators of the China/Avant-Garde exhibition, "the art of the last decade has always evolved through the intrusion and purification of external factors in art... The emphasis on self-regulation throughout the last decade has always been accompanied by the factor of a variety of social trends which have become the two major intellectual threads that govern art.”[ Li Xianting, "My Confession as the organizer of 'China/Avant-Garde Art Exhibition'", Spring 1989, "Study of Contemporary Chinese Art: The Significance Does Not Lie in Art" (Nanjing: Jiangsu Fine Arts Publishing House, 2000), p. 256-265] As the overall designer of the exhibition, he placed these works together in the West Hall on the third floor of the National Art Museum of China. In the exhibition, these two works by Ding Yi are next to the paper-cutting installation "Chi Chu" created by Lü Shengzhong in 1988 and exhibited at the National Art Museum in October of that year. The installation itself was a maze filled footprints cut from paper, the paper cutting technique is prominent in Chinese folk art. Although the form is significant on its own Lü Shengzhong set out to show the linguistic characteristics of paper-cutting and the strong visual impact of its repetition: "Instruments and materials are incapable of providing complete and immediate freedom of expression on their own, but by carving and cutting paper of various colors, I taste the thrill of destruction and construction at the same time, using this particular language of symmetry to form, fold, and repeat." [ Lü Shengzhong, “Oct 1988, ‘Lü Shengzhong Papercut Art Show’ at National Art Museum of China”, Artron, 20081208/n64212.html] One work from the same category which was originally set to be exhibited was Xu Bing's 1988 "A Book from the Sky”. The work itself is a compiled a "book" of more than 4,000 Chinese characters in Song script from the Ming dynasty, which the artist engraved and printed by hand. This time-consuming and labor-intensive work includes thousands of meaningless "pseudo-Chinese characters" that look like real Chinese characters, but are actually meaningless "pseudo-Chinese characters" created by the artist. Although it was moved to the West Hall on the second floor due to issues with the space, at the time there were still "some commentators argued that ... It was characterized by its powerful representation of traditional woodblock printing culture but was nothing more than an abstraction of Chinese woodblock printing. A form of abstract art, consistent with an abstract style that emphasizes a sense of materiality and painterliness." Li Xianting intentionally placed this work by Xu Bing alongside works that focus on the self-regulation of artistic language and abstraction.

Ding Yi's “Appearance of Crosses” journey began with the tug-of-war between “concept” and “form/language” that took place in the Chinese art world between 1987 and 1988. Although looking back on that period from today's perspective, the decision of artists and theorists at that time to choose between the ontology of art or Avant-garde concepts was a reactive solution to deal with the emergency at hand. This distinction between concepts and forms in art was completely made up by those at the time. Artists found themselves at the critical point in history which forced them to unconsciously chose between the two paths based on their own experience. And for Ding Yi, it was a position and idea that was clear from the start, but it also marked a big change in his life and an epic farewell. It was in itself a kind of exploratory distinction that was reached. In his 1991 “Random Thoughts on Art”, Ding Yi laid down the creative principles of "Appearance of Crosses" as follows:

"Appearance of Crosses" series proposes two issues:
Precision. As integrated and certain as 1+1=2. Use clear, pure expressions, abandon the clutter of "right and wrong".
Adherence to the principle of automatic color selection. That is the distrust of Cézanne and Matisse's theory of color.

The self-prescribed rules for the creative process as the core method of creation makes Ding Yi's work not only relevant in the context of abstract painting, but it should also be placed alongside and compared with the early conceptual practices that began to emerge in the same period. In the August 29th, 1988 issue of Fine Arts in China, the first printing of the “Avant-Garde Art” column featured "Tactile Art", Mail Art" and "Project Art", as one of the two new directions that emerged from the post-1987 "New Wave Art”. It marked the move beyond an infatuation for superficial social and philosophical concepts. "The emphasis is on introspection of art and culture itself, attempting to use the whole of world art, especially Western modern art, as a starting point."[  Li Xianting, "Avant-garde Art", “Fine Arts in China”, 1988, Issue 35, p. 1] These first attempts at conceptual creation share the attempt to restrict the artist's subjective intention by using seemingly rational and objective rules to allow the creative process to unfold within the set of rules, insisting on a literal reading of such objectivity and rationality rather than an excessive projection of meaning. Such a conceptual point of initiation also makes Ding Yi's creative practice self-critical by nature. His expression is under constant introspection and adjustment to adhere to the regulations of his creative method and it this self-reflective methodology that nurtures the inner drive to constantly reinvent himself. That is why, despite his initial pursuit of artistic integrity and the emphasis on the removal of meaning and the purification of art, Ding Yi's creative career gradually parted ways with the exploration of art forms, abstract painting practices, and the emphasis on the meaningless, tedious and labor-intensive process of his work.

Abstraction as form

Before we continue to comb through Ding Yi's creative journey, we need to briefly retrace the path and origins that lead up to this point.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Shanghai brought together many thinkers and art students returning from Japan, Europe, and the United States. It became the birthplace of modernist art trends, whether in the form of artistic practices or art education and theoretical research. “It was this philosophy of 'East meets West’ that would go on to shape the stylistic fundamentals of Chinese oil painting throughout the early 20th century.”[ Li Chao, “History of Modern Oil Painting in China” (Shanghai: Shanghai Calligraphy And Painting Publishing House, 2007), p. 199] In the late 1930s and early 1940s, the reality of the war to save the nation inspired a nationalized practice of oil painting with an integrated flare, it tended to focus on both the language of Western realism and the traditional language found in freehand brushwork. Some experiments sought to combine the expressive language of the West with the language of traditional freehand brushwork. Some examples adhered to the traditional guidelines of Chinese painting while incorporating western materials and other desirable qualities. While others sought to incorporate the Western practice of painting from life directly into Chinese painting. There were also those who sought to infuse the tones of Chinese painting into Western painting. It was at the height of this trend to localize oil painting that Ding Yi's favorite artist Guan Liang who studied in Japan switched to the system of Chinese ink painting. Guan Liang used his knowledge of opera to create poetic scenes, and achieved a theatrical effect in his paintings by incorporating the sketches he did of actual plays. In his portrayal of Chinese opera actors through freehand brushwork, he successfully expresses the charm and essence of Chinese ink painting with the material and language of oil painting, forming his own individual "synthesized" interpretation of art. At an early stage of studying art, Ding Yi began his artistic exploration by combining modern painting of the West with local traditional painting to achieve his own language of expression. The influence these reflections surrounding localization have had on Ding Yi goes far beyond the mere borrowing of formal languages from the West. More intrinsically, Ding Yi has always been proactive in his pursuit of artistic exploration, translating resources of art from multiple sources into his own mode of expression.

A chance encounter with a book by Parisian painter Maurice Utrillo owned by Yu Youhan led Ding Yi to focus his attention on the industrialization of Shanghai in the early 1980s. He imitated the methods and moods Maurice Utrillo used to represent the Parisian scenes of the 1920s in his paintings in his depictions of Shanghai street scenes. His paintings had less representation of light and shadow and focused instead on creating a relatively gray palette with no apparent sunlight or temporality. In the urban street scenes created by Ding Yi in this period, there are "a number of roads or architectural structures that are linked by lines." This fully illustrates his interest in and sentiment for the structural aspects of painting.[ Ding Yi, “The Course of Abstraction”, ed. Liu Ding, Carol Yinghua Lu and Su Wei, “Individual Experience: Conversations and Narratives of Contemporary Art Practice in China from 1989 to 2000” (Guangzhou: Lingnan Fine Arts Publishing House, 2013), p.124]

In November 1983, Ding Yi visited the "Zao Wou-ki Painting Exhibition" held at the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts (now China Academy of Art) and was greatly shocked by Zao's attempt to combine Chinese and Western styles in abstraction. In Guan Liang's practice, Ding Yi had already seen the ideal mode of fusion between China and the West, while the more harmonious and natural fusion between China and the West was accomplished by Zao Wou-ki in abstract form indirectly triggered Ding Yi to start experimenting with abstraction. This aesthetic ideal also drove Ding Yi to choose Chinese traditional painting as his major when he applied to the Academy of Fine Arts of Shanghai University for the second time.[ Qian Naijing, “Ding Yi:A Short Essay”, ed. Lü Peng, “Contemporary Artists Series” (Chengdu: Sichuan Fine Arts Publishing House), p.16] That same year, inspired by the heroic sentiments in the Australian film “‘Breaker’ Morant”, Ding Yi completed his first abstract work, "Heroism". In the painting, Ding Yi uses structural language and contrasts of colors, especially a reddish-orange hue, to create a spectacular, heroic scene. This oil on canvas is closer to Zao Wou-ki's approach in both form and appearance and is a departure from the realistic painting techniques that characterized most abstract works of the time. In Ding Yi's view, most of the abstract paintings during that time just looked like enlarged sections cut out from realist paintings.

Before he had embarked on the creative path of "Appearance of Crosses", Ding Yi was deeply influenced by Yu Youhan, an artist 19 years older than him. He also benefited from the radical exhibitions "Black White Black", "Concrete-Convex exhibition" and "M Conceptual Art Performance Exhibition" in the mid-1980s, which were aimed at conceptual breakthroughs, and 'the eclecticism of taste and the incomplete modernity of the newly-formed new art including abstract art'. This was a time of "conscious challenge" and the relaxed environment Shanghai provided for individualized artistic experimentation.[ Zhao Chuan, “Yu Youhan and His Students” in “Shanghai chouxiang gushi” (Shanghai Abstract Stories), (Shanghai: Shanghai People’s Fine Arts Publishing House, 2006), p. 49]

Shanghai Art and Design Academy, where Yu Youhan taught Ding Yi, was one of the two sources of abstract art in Shanghai in the 1980s. Another student of Yu Youhan's, artist Wang Ziwei, recalled after many years: "The Art and Design Academy didn't like expressionism, and it's not true to say that Yu was the only influencer. He didn't have much status at the time (Yu Youhan), it was like he was studying together with us and we would all paint in acrylic, it was a school of acrylic painting."[ Ibid.] And Ding Yi himself said that more than anything Yu taught us how to understand what Cézanne was.[ Ibid.] "Surrender the painting back to the picture, to the two-dimensional planar structure of the picture itself. This structure is not something that comes with emotion or interest, and it has nothing to do with philosophical literacy. It is a rational thought about how to transfer the three-dimensional, even within a temporal space, onto the flat material when described in the language of painting. Cézanne leads the tendency to bring conceptual thinking into painting, even with the illusion of seeming scientific."[ Ibid. p.51] In my opinion, it is precisely this orientation of "bringing conceptual thinking into painting" that drives Ding Yi to choose such a self-critical path in his works, and this is also the path that led Ding Yi to contemporary art.

Inspired by the same idea, Wang Ziwei insisted on interpreting his two-year-long series of paintings which incorporated the Chinese Character "米" as conceptual art and not abstract painting. At the same time, his fellow classmate at The Art and Design Academy, Jin Ang, was also painting blue grids that mimicked Reinhardt. They held books of American abstract art from the '60s and ‘70s and said “These Reinhardt, Jasper Jones, and Newman albums represent the most fashionable and culturally advanced artwork of the times.”[ Ibid. p.60] But it wasn't long before "they went back to figurative, painting 'more advanced' works with Pop overtones." Their teacher, Yu Youhan, also began painting a series of pop-style portraits of Mao Zedong in 1988 and stopped working on the "Circle" series after 1991.

In 1986, Wang Ziwei exhibited his repetitive black-and-white grids in the exhibition, "Black White Black", presenting a pure return to a structural orientation.[ Qian Naijing, “Ding Yi:A Short Essay”, ed. Lü Peng, “Contemporary Artists Series” (Chengdu: Sichuan Fine Arts Publishing House), p.26] This same year, Ding Yi rediscovered the "crosslines", a form of measurement he often encountered in his previous job, to mark the printing area. In 1980, Ding Yi graduated from high school and began to study interior design at the Shanghai Art and Design Academy. After graduating from the Shanghai Art and Design Academy in 1983, Ding Yi was assigned to the technical section of the 12th Shanghai Toy Factory, where he engaged in the design and packaging of toys. "There were no computers, everything was hand-drawn in black, accompanied by a variety of printing symbols used for indicating what was needed: the black line was the printing line, the blue line was the cutting line, and the ‘cross’ line was a symbol used to determine the accuracy of the overprint, they all left a lasting impression on me."[ Lu Cheng, "Ding Yi: In the Same Way," edited by Feng Boyi, “Ambushed On All Sides: An Intervention from a Social Perspective" (Chengdu: Sichuan Fine Arts Press, 2020), p. 86] For Ding Yi, the jargon he learned from printing had the potential to become a motif without cultural reference and empty of any aesthetic value. One which could be infinitely reproduced and extended, it was the perfect object to realize his artistic endeavor at that period in time. As a result, he selected it as the basic unit for expressing his thoughts. In 1985, Ding Yi created the abstract oil painting "Breaking the Sacrifice", in which the "cross" symbol appears vaguely; in the abstract oil painting "Taboo" in 1986, a cross appears on the picture for the first time, depicted with expressive strokes. To be precise, it is an "x" that appears in the paintings, not a "cross". The "x" in these paintings is a code word for rebellion. Talking about the naming of these two works, Ding Yi said, "At that time, I wanted to rebel and break with tradition, so I put 'xx' on the paintings because 'x' generally means opposition. The images in 1985's ‘Breaking the Sacrifice’ are a bit like Zao Wou-ki's in that they oppose the fusion of the expressionist style that was popular at the time. The composition of 1986's ‘Taboo’ is more intricate structurally than that of ‘Breaking the Sacrifice’, with boxes set in boxes, and it seems more rational.”[ Ding Yi, Messages exchange with the author of this article over WeChat on August 7, 2020] In short, these two works have "gradually begun to depart from a specific, descriptive pictorial language that corresponds directly to social development,” Moreover, in "Taboo" a graphic syntax can be seen in its "structure within a structure, a box with a frame within a box, and a small wireframe within a larger frame".[ Ding Yi, “The Course of Abstraction”, ed. Liu Ding, Carol Yinghua Lu and Su Wei, “Individual Experience: Conversations and Narratives of Contemporary Art Practice in China from 1989 to 2000”(Guangzhou: Lingnan Fine Arts Publishing House, 2013), p.124] This accomplishment directly steams from Ding Yi's study of modernism during this period, especially the principles of modernist analysis he learned from the paintings of Cézanne and Picasso. This language of "painting within a painting, frame within a frame" would be carried on into his later paintings. For Ding Yi, abstract painting was only a kind of coat and temporary solution. A short time later he would reach the stage of seeing concepts as issues to resolve through his work.

Concepts as issues

After drawing the declarative "Appearance of Crosses I", "Appearance of Crosses II" and "Appearance of Crosses III". Ding Yi believed that his pursuit of creative expression and his emphasis on the "cross" symbols caused him to neglect the overall composition of the painting. More spatial layers and complex picture structures appear in the images from 1989 than in these three works. In “Appearance of Crosses 1989-4”, a grid of thin black lines is woven together with thick peach-colored lines, and part of the grid is bordered by thick goose-yellow lines. Another part of the grid is filled with different colors and regularly enclosed in a rectangle to create the visual effect that there is another picture within the picture. While all the lines are still vertical and horizontal, there is a sense of rhythm in the scene which is conveyed through changes in the line thickness, depth, and color, and a degree of spaciousness begins to appear in the composition. Later, in “Appearance of Crosses 1989-6”, Ding Yi continued to use the long straight lines of different thicknesses and colors that run through the painting, interlacing them to form crosses. At this point in his practice, Ding Yi added oblique lines to the painting for the first time, weaving a more intricate visual effect and a certain illusion of perspective. The overall cold tone of the painting is a result of adhering to the principle of automatic color selection. This color scheme emulates the free and uninhibited form of automatism, at the same time the scheme coupled with self-induced limitations. It is through the introduction of these rules and restrictions regarding one’s autonomy that the ambition and emotion that accompany an individual's self-determination are suppressed. In terms of the latter, Ding Yi's approach to painting constructs a connection to conceptual art. This approach shares the ideological origins for the pursuit of rationality and the production of conceptual work with the New Measurement Group, which was formed around the same time and sought to explore the possibility of dissolving the ambition and experience of the individual through in-depth analysis.

In Appearance of Crosses 1989-7, Ding Yi uses more thin lines giving the painting a meticulous structure that submerges the crosses, while maintaining the symmetry and regularity characteristic of his paintings from this period. It was not until "Appearance of Crosses 1989-11" that he began to dissolve the regularity and symmetry of the composition and get rid of the oblique lines. However, this attempt was not continued thereafter with "Appearance of Crosses 1990-7" or "Appearance of Crosses 1991-3," which instead emphasized slanted lines. The proportion of "cross" symbols in the picture decreases, and the white vertical and horizontal lines unify the slanting lines of different colors, thicknesses, and directions, creating layer upon layer of space in the picture. This is especially apparent in "Appearance of Crosses 1991-3," where a sense of immense scale is portrayed from the picture as a whole, which makes this work one of the most integrated works from Ding Yi's early period.

"Appearance of Crosses 1991-3," also puts an end to this emphasis on being consistently precise as well as drawing rationally and evenly like a machine. While creating his works on canvas, Ding Yi continued his meticulous drawings using a ruler and fine colored pencils on paper. This way of drawing put immense strain on his body, and after several days, he could no longer stand straight due to bending over a desk for such a prolonged period. This forced Ding Yi to adopt a new method of painting: standing the canvas upright and leaning it against the wall, standing straight up and painting directly onto the canvas with his bare hands. The adjustment of the painting method brought about a direct change in the language of the painting.

In the first hand-painted (without rulers) work "Appearance of Crosses 1991-4," we find that the previously straight lines running through the canvas have been replaced by short, thick, expressive lines of varying lengths and thicknesses, and although the white dashed lines that traverse the image from left to right and top to bottom also help us discern a sense of order, the rhythm of change in the picture is quite Compact, the image appears very colorful, with layers of interlocking grids and horizontal and vertical lines intersecting each other to create a sense of space that is elastic and very loose, a far cry from the previous image.

Beginning with this work, Ding Yi shifted to a process of using expressive brushstrokes to make the structure appear more serendipitous. In "Appearance of Crosses 1991-7", which uses black as the background color, each small grid is made up of lines painted in different colors. The crosses are painted with changing colors, and finally, short white dotted lines are added to the lines of the outer frame of each grid. A sense of structure; when viewed closely can be seen. The fragmented distribution of colored lines or shapes creates richer randomness in the front-to-back relationship of the composition, with each stroke differing in shape and color from the previous one.

Compared to the super-stability of the previous paintings produced with tools, "Appearance of Crosses", which was drawn with no tools, began to pursue detailed changes and an overall sense of structure, getting rid of a certain degree of mechanics and consistency from the use of tools, returning the possibility of controlling each stroke by the artist's hand. It's a transformation worth mentioning, from prescribing oneself a set of rules and using tools to get rid of any sort of painterliness, to freeing oneself from self-imposed limitations and entering into a dynamic creative process, while maintaining the overall structure and smoothness of the composition within it. The inherent contradiction between this self-limiting attempt to be always present and the desire to release complexity in it constitutes the tension in his subsequent works. Ding Yi is highly conscious of the use of formal language as well as its connotations and the transformation of meaning it may induce. The reflexivity of form is always within the scope of the artist's rational thinking, which makes Ding Yi's work strategically closer to neo-geometric art rather than to abstract painting.

During this stage of exploration, Ding Yi also borrowed the method of using ink from Chinese painting. In "Appearance of Crosses 1992-18", for example, the artist uses white acrylic on a black background to paint crosses and x’s one by one. The first brush stroke is the most concentrated and the whitest, and as more and more forms are depicted with the brush, the white gradually fades, naturally causing some dynamic changes in the spatial relationship and the overall rhythm of the painting. Three large-scale black-and-white works, "Appearance of Crosses 1992-18," "Appearance of Crosses 1992-19," and "Appearance of Crosses 1992-20," created with similar techniques, were invited to participate in the Venice Biennale the following year. In this exhibition, paintings were misinterpreted by the European and American media as "Political Pop" and "Cynical Realism", which reproduced political images and symbols of the Maoist era in a flamboyant and pop style, received much attention. At this stage of his career Ding Yi, together with the younger generation of artists who had emerged at the "China/Avant-Garde" exhibition, frequently participated in group exhibitions overseas that focused on new Chinese art. These experiences and the feedback he received made him realize that the focus on Chinese art was still politicized and viewed through a Cold War lens. In contrast, Ding Yi's work, which specialized in the language of art and carved out his own field of work, can’t possibly become newsworthy and popular overnight. He is acutely aware that "my art takes time, and it can only really stand on its own if I keep developing myself."[ “The Power of Abstraction – Ding Yi on Three Decades of Art-making”, interview by Fan Mengyang, Artsy’s official WeChat account, 28th April 2019,]

Experiments in Different Mediums on the Path to Contemporaneity

In the early 1990s, commentaries on artists and their work continued with the " cultural fever" that began in the 1980s. The general aim was to establish artistic relevancy on a practical level, whereas the focus of criticism remained at the psychological, sociological, and philosophical levels where it sought to provide a basis for artworks. However, the commentary on the artwork itself was completely neglected. Through the course of interaction with the international art world, a sense of dissatisfaction gradually emerged in the Chinese art world. The feedback from the outside world, that is art mechanisms of the West, whether it be from the Venice Biennale, the São Paulo Biennale, or other international exhibitions; along with an emerging domestic art market and its preference and recognition of certain styles gave rise to widespread demand for systematic and readily available criteria for evaluating creative expression. While politically directed and socially charged topics often become the medium and language for artists to create, they also offer the only avenue for art criticism to gain direct access to the process of art production. However, artists and creators themselves were not satisfied with the overly simplified symbolization and standardized categorization of art which is so rampant in these critical mechanisms.

As the process of globalization took its hold, the interactions between China's contemporary art world and the art worlds of the West increased. This economic potential of contemporary art in China gave rise to a new generation of critics. It was in this context that in 1991 the "New Generation" and "Garage" exhibitions in Beijing and Shanghai took place. They were followed up by the first Guangzhou Biennale of 1992. All were promoted by artists who organized and curated these exhibitions themselves. Although Ding Yi did not participate in any of these exhibitions, he believed the marketization of contemporary art, the recognition, and pursuit of contemporaneity as well as the realism and the conceptual work that they promoted were all relevant to the cultural and artistic contexts of that period. These different trajectories would go on to gradually shape their own political landscapes during the 1990s through academic institutions, international exhibitions, and the art market.

More inspired by conceptual work, Ding Yi immersed even further into his own experimental explorations during this period. He realized that after lifting the self-inflicted limitations and working directly with his hands, that painting was "like skiing, it's too effortless, too easy.”[ Ding Yi, “The Course of Abstraction”, ed. Liu Ding, Carol Yinghua Lu and Su Wei, “Individual Experience: Conversations and Narratives of Contemporary Art Practice in China from 1989 to 2000”(Guangzhou: Lingnan Meishu Chubanshe, 2013)] He felt the need to set something up and experiment with various methods of slowing down the process of painting to avoid it becoming too smooth and facile. In "Appearance of Crosses 1993-5" and "Appearance of Crosses 1993-7", for example, he paints directly on natural-colored linen without a glue base, and during the process of painting, the cloth continuously absorbs the acrylic paint, which makes it impossible for the lines to flow. At the same time, he adds four more strokes and colors to the original cross motif to create the eight-pointed character for rice “米”. This adds to the difficulty and slows down the overall process allowing time to correct any possible issues that might have occurred. When slowed down the lines on the screen are not uniform, although they retain the hand-drawn marks of each stroke. But the overall painting appears solemn and sound.

In the contemporary art scene of China during the 1990s, experimenting in different mediums was a pressing  issue. The identity of the contemporary artist was often defined by whether or not he or she was engaging in installations and videos that appear to be more contemporary, than painting which was given an easel-based prefix and a bias that it was not contemporary enough. The artists hoped that through categorization they might establish a clear idea of where they were and what they were doing thus proving they were "contemporary enough.” The anxiety surrounding different mediums embodied this urge to be contemporary. "The most common and immediate visual manifestation of 'contemporaneity' in Chinese experimental art and film in the 1990s was the adoption of novel (for Chinese artists) artistic mediums, materials, and genres. This also means that to achieve their contemporaneity, experimental artists and filmmakers must challenge the existing paradigm surrounding different media and genres, such as painting and sculpture in the traditional sense, or traditional documentary films or feature films."[ Wu Hung, “Introduction: a decade of Chinese experimental art (1990-2000)”, Wu Hung, ed., “Reinterpretation: a decade of Chinese experimental art” (Guangzhou: Guangdong Museum of Art, 2002), p. 15]

In such an environment, many artists begin conducting their own experiments with materials; many painters also tried to achieve a breakthrough in their pictorial language. Since 1993, Ding Yi has experimented with all sorts of different materials he has come across. He has experimented in different dimensions of the canvas to expand the expressive potential of painting as a medium in a more direct way. For example, beginning with “Appearances of Crosses 1993-11”, he introduced many other drawing techniques, such as drawing black forks with charcoal and marrying chalk and acrylic, from "magic chalk" to kill cockroaches, to colored chalk for teaching, to flat chalk for tailors, all of which were used by Ding Yi. When drawing with charcoal and chalk on rough linen or rough paper, the soft brush experience of drawing is replaced by hard scratches, leading us to break away from our habitual experience and face a new sense of strangeness, and to actually feel that drawing is always dealing with some real substance rather than simply creating an illusion. In his notes of July 28, 1994, he wrote, "The various variations in the nature of the fog are caused by the materials moving from a solid state to a powdered state through contact and friction with each other. As such the work is defined in a colloquial form of chance and randomness."[ Ding Yi, a note, July 28, 1994, unpublished] Because of his interest in reflective effects of black, he creates reflective black masses on the painting by repeatedly covering the area with acrylics, pencil or ballpoint pen. Media experimentation during this period also extended to beyond the canvas, painting on folded fans and screens, taking full advantage of the inherent perspective latent in folded objects. It became increasingly clear that the search for the visual language of art was no longer the focus of his work: "I must confess my doubts of a purified visual language as the ultimate goal of my artistic endeavor."[ Ding Yi, July 28, 1994, “White Book”, ed. Zeng Xiaojun, etc.]

In the 1990s, once the market economy began to take full effect in Chinese society, the state-driven "cultural economy" and the modus operandi prevalent in the cultural industry restructured the fabric of the socio-cultural space. Against this historical backdrop, literary and artistic production "established a complex relationship of resistance and complicity between political power and the market. The emergence of the ‘cultural economy’ made it possible for culture and politics to become relatively alienated, transforming the original cultural framework that was made up by merging political power with elite culture. This transformation caused the fissures latent in the socio-cultural space to deepen, and further complicated the dynamic between the various components and forces at work within it. The promotion of "core themes" is a recurring strategic cultural measure of the state, which also allows for, and even promotes, the formation of a leisure space to house popular culture.”[ Hong Zicheng, “History of Contemporary Chinese Literature”(Beijing: Beijing University Publish House, 2010), p.411]

This social space, which was gradually shaped by commercial culture, led to the rapid spread of popular culture, also known as "mass culture," which was spread throughout society via mass media, and became the most prominent expression of culture during the 1990s.The pursuit of "aesthetic devolution" in artworks, or the further dismantling of aesthetic values and hierarchies in art through the appropriation of consumer goods and ready-made products, was a common characteristic prevalent in the "political pop", "cynical realism" and "kitsch art" of this period.

Then the everyday commercial culture entered into the iconography and contents of the artists, becoming a way for the artist to resist habitual aesthetics. At the same time, the "appropriation" or "presentation" of post-modern culture gained widespread use and became a new means of generating meaning. In 1996, Ding Yi used white chalk to draw diagonal lines on a black, white, and gray gridded canvas, and connected the finished canvas to a canvas of the same size filled with crosses and eight-pointed "米“ characters, to create "Appearances of Crosses 1996-37". Since then, he has continued to introduce all kinds of ready-made products from daily life: cardboard, packaging boxes, etc., painting directly on them according to their shapes and characteristics. He pushed this method of working to the extreme after 1997, when he purchased sheets of ready-made floral and gingham fabric, utilizing the original pattern as the base adding a layer of crosses or brush strokes, creating the effect of a "painting within a painting". This act forcibly transformed the color of the original background and presented his pattern on top of it.

After painting on the gingham canvas for some time, Ding Yi gradually changed his previous method of simulating the drawing of a consistent pattern onto the canvas.
Instead, he began using the grid of the canvas itself as the base and coordinates to provide the canvas with stability. The stability of the canvas enabled Ding Yi to change the pattern freely, as a result, he no longer pursued the consistency and uniformity of the overall composition. Instead, he wove free patterns through rhetorical means such as changing color combinations and cross directions. These practices can all be seen as an extension and expansion of his media-based practice. More importantly, this phase of in-depth exploration has enabled Ding Yi to establish his painting as "a parallel methodology of spirituality and visual touch". This marked a significant point in the artist's creative development. By expanding the expressive potential and connotations of his paintings, Ding Yi persistently placed himself in the conceptual, ideological, and psychological sequence of Chinese contemporary art culture embodied in the black, white, and grey books of the 1990s. Artists on this list “emphasize the independent integrity and critical stance artistic existence is contingent upon, calling for artists to maintain their independence, freedom, and plurality amid hypocrisy and conflict. It advocates for the responsibility and discipline of artists, to seek out different possibilities and ways to make art ‘wild’ while taking into account the current situation and problems facing contemporary Chinese culture."[ “About ‘Uncooperative Approach’”, ed. Feng Boyi, etc., exhibition catalogue of“Uncooperative Approach”(2000), p.8] It is also this desire to be relevant to contemporary Chinese culture in his work that allows Ding Yi to enrich his own possibilities within his own system.

Continuous Reversion and Expansion

Ding Yi's practice throughout the 1990s is perhaps best summarized by his constant experimentation with new techniques, multi-dimensional experiments and new vocabularies, brushwork, grammar, and rhetoric, enabling "crosses" to grow from a symbol into a system of expression that embraces multiple grammars. In the beginning, the "cross" was not only the most basic pictorial element but also the embodiment of discipline. By using the tools of painting, and the rules and limitations Ding Yi set up himself, he successfully restricted expression, brushstrokes, experience, emotion, and arbitrariness to a limited scope, cutting off the path of meaning from the content of the painting. The early "Cross" clearly expresses this desire for reason and restraint. The stage of seeking absolute balance, calmness, and stability with the aid of tools and simulating machine-like work patterns and forms of expression on the canvas ended when his body could not bear the long hours of bending over to draw. The artist shifted to painting free-hand while continuing to pursue the consistency of pictorial intensity even though each stroke couldn't replicate the previous one. On this basis, the final pattern was no longer confined to a uniform composition. This shift has actually enabled the artist to open up new horizons in the reproduction of urban landscapes with a matrix of "crosses" on the canvas.

Around 2000, Ding Yi moved his studio from the suburbs near Shanghai University to the banks of the Suzhou River amidst the rapid development and changes of the urban landscape. From then on, he began to recreate the lights and the shadows of the city he perceived in his compositions. "I also want to express the great changes of this era with my work. So I started looking for a way to express myself, and I realized that the fluorescent colors might the best way to represent the character of Shanghai during that period. In addition to the rapid development of its architecture, Shanghai was also the first city to implement a kind of lighting project. The city was flooded with neon advertisements, the lights on the highway were bright and dazzling. When you got a bird's-eye view of the city from a high building, you get that flickering fluorescent feeling. So since 1999, I have been using fluorescent and metallic colors extensively in my works as a way to express my feelings about the real world."[ Lu Cheng, "Ding Yi: In the Same Way", edited by Feng Boyi", “Ambushed On All Sides: An Intervention from a Social Perspective" (Chengdu: Sichuan Fine Arts Press, 2020), p. 86] In his works from this period, he frequently used strong bright fluorescent colors to spread the entire picture and create an impactful visual effect, he also made the structure of the picture more complex by allocating different bright colors and enriching local details, while making perspective and dynamics more obvious, recreating the ever-changing urban landscape, as well as his views on urban change and the increasingly commercialized atmosphere. Worries and Reflections. Among them, there were "Appearance of Crosses 2001-B20" which looks like a city plan, "Appearance of Crosses 2002-2" which looks like a neon screen indispensable in the night scene of a busy city, and "Appearance of Crosses 2006-13". The impact of the prosperity of urban culture and the multiplicity of daily life after 2000 translates into Ding Yi's more agitated expressions in his paintings.

Ding Yi's paintings during this period also fully demonstrated the flexibility of his paintings to both revive and recreate the multiple rhetorical styles pioneered in the 1990s. At the same time, he was also able to draw resources directly from the vocabulary of contemporary life during that period to make relevant statements about contemporary life with a contemporary vocabulary. In "Appearance of Crosses 2007-3", Ding Yi imitates digital patterns by strengthening the pattern of vertical ribbons in the painting. The constant impetus for Ding Yi's creation comes from the intense feelings derived from reality and his desire to engage in dialogue with the context in which he is present. Another drive to create stems from the desire to gaze at, ponder over, and transcend the medium itself.

The desire to represent, mirror, and simulate various aspects of reality and the natural world contributed to the pictorial richness and diversity of this period. Although the themes, visual atmosphere, and ideas of the times, including the feelings toward the continually changing urban landscape, have all influenced Ding Yi's practice, he does not seek infinite external expansion. Instead, he still tends to see himself as an artist working around the meaning of artistic language and medium. As one who always strives to break through the inherent limitations.
During the twelve years, he has been painting in fluorescent colors, he has only shifted between four primary colors: fluorescent green, fluorescent yellow, fluorescent orange, and fluorescent pink. This is both due to the limited variety of fluorescent colors and to Ding Yi's conviction that one of the sources of the inherent tension in his work is the ability to break through the limitations and control the composition: "It is during this breakthrough or through this process of interaction that I can sense much of the so-called essence of painting that should be preserved. It's not about providing the richest description, there are a lot of essential things in the language of description that remains unchanging and can extend very deep into the painting. They represent a certain power that can endure for a very prolonged period of time."[ Ding Yi, “The Course of Abstraction”, ed. Liu Ding, Carol Yinghua Lu and Su Wei, “Individual Experience: Conversations and Narratives of Contemporary Art Practice in China from 1989 to 2000”(Guangzhou: Lingnan Meishu Chubanshe, 2013), p.129]

Just like in 1992, Ding Yi gave up painting with a ruler because he couldn't bear to bend his body for a long time; in 2011, his eyes were strained by painting with fluorescent colors for a long time, which made him face the limitations of his situation once again and explore a new path. When talking about the shift in his work since 2011, Ding Yi uses “A Return to Black and White" to describe the palette he uses in his work which is made up of black, white, grey, and dark shades. This "Return to Black and White" is partly due to the strain on the eye after a prolonged period of painting with fluorescent colors, and partly driven by the instinct to return to self-limitation as a means exploring spaces and possibilities. “This includes my recent work where the black and white layout is very rational but when it comes to the ebb and flow between the scene and perspective, I make the freer elements more obvious. I think that there will always be a mixture of these two aspects in the art.”[ “A Ding Yi Interview by Mathieu Boryseviczin” ed. Tan Guobin, “2013 Art Changsha: Ding Yi”(Changsha: Hunan Fine Arts Publishing House, 2013),  p.139] Ding Yi paints grids, crosses, dashes, and slashes on a black canvas with varying shades of white and grey while retaining multiple layers and spaces. The composition opens up to reveal a magnificent pattern that resembles a deep night sky, glittering with stars and lights, it is both moving and evocative. Ding Yi once wrote: "What I always wanted to express in my work was my interest in the scene and my control of it. I wanted to display a way that is unique and allows for a dialogue with different people. This kind of approach has always been at the heart of my work."[ Ibid.]

Since the end of 2014, Ding Yi began to try to combine painting and carving into his art making, “I just wanted to build up a painterly relationship between the woodcut and painting, and not merely create a woodblock picture.” [ Ding Yi "Conversation between Shane McCausland and Ding Yi", "What's Left to Appear: Ding Yi” (Shanghai: Shanghai People's Fine Arts Publishing House, 2915), p. 113] With this goal in mind, Ding Yi specifically asked a printmaking teacher to teach him woodcutting techniques. After some time studying, he quickly figured out his language to express himself. The process goes like this, he first prepares the areas where the colors will be inlayed on the linden board. Then he begins applying three different colored pigments as a base and covers them with a layer of black or white. After he uses a chisel to carve out crosses or 米 to reveal the colors hidden beneath the surface in varying degrees. These works are basically completed with "three chisels”: a diamond-shaped chisel is used to carve a sharp line. Then a curved chisel is used to follow the line with varying degrees of emphasis to bring out the colors of the different layers under the board. Last a concave chisel is used to carve out small square dots. These colored slices carved out with a chisel, combine with brightly colored brushstrokes on the surface to accentuate the painterly nature of the scene, giving the composition a sense of space and distinguished structure. In recent years, he has made further advancements in the layering of colors on top of base colors. This is achieved by inlaying different blocks of color into the same layer so that when they are carved out, there is more dynamic diversity in the texture of the colors presented in the picture. Because the color coating is embedded beneath the black or white surface coating, the eye does not have to look directly at the base colors for long periods. The fluorescent colors that lie latent underneath are again requisitioned to be "released" by the brilliance of the chisel.

Although not predetermined or pursued in advance, Ding Yi also has paintings that are rooted in his perception of society and nature. He summarizes the vision in his paintings from 2010 onwards as a more three-dimensional globalized landscape seen from an elevated perspective, as opposed to the bird's-eye view presented during the twelve years of painting in fluorescent colors. These works are depicted as if looking down on the city from a skyscraper or an airplane. There are also the formal and material explorations he made between 1988 and 1998 by painting from an elevated, horizontal perspective. "Appearance of Crosses 2017-B4" on paper was created after his first trip to Cuba in 2017. Thanks to a trip to Havana with friends, Ding Yi gained a sense of the strong disparity of the people and the vast wealth gap between the rich and poor as well as the omnipresent Chinese influence throughout Havana. These observations and direct shocks translate into several eye-catching, tension-filled focal points on the canvas. Although he had been painting on linden wood panels for some time, his works on paper have been developing parallel through creative veins that have continued to flow since 1991.

Some of the paintings were unintentional lessons taught by nature. "Two-thirds of the way through "Appearance of Crosses 2018-1", it suddenly struck me that the scene resembled the Yatan landscape I saw in Dunhuang last year - it's actually centuries of sand being blown and is slowly eroding away at some of the natural mountains."[ He Jing, “A Conversation with Ding Yi: Finding a New Spirit in Painting”, ed. Feng Boyi, “Ding Yi: 十×30 Years” (Shanghai People's Fine Arts Publishing House 2018), p.20] This discovery during the painting process prompted the artist to create an inclined impact in this painting, to break through the original visual effect formed in a flat plane. This painting also inspired the artist to paint a larger and more scenic "Appearance of Crosses 2018-2". With the experience gained from painting "Appearance of Crosses 2018-2", Ding Yi began to reconfigure the colors in the next painting to create a clearer color scheme. This is an example of one painting generating a new painting, and there is no shortage of such experiences in Ding Yi's work, where the previous painting has a natural corollary and stimulating effect on the next. In painting these recent works, the artist's order of painting has also undergone some changes. Instead of "writing" from left to right, from top to bottom, he begins painting from the upper left corner and accents to the middle. Then he follows the diagonal line from the lower right corner to the top; later he uses the diagonal line to connect the lower-left corner and the upper right corner as a guideline. This technique gives the painting a clear diagonal direction, which is both stable and dynamic at the same time.

In recent years, Ding Yi has reached a zenith in his creativity where all he wants to do is work immerse himself completely to the point where he feels like he can't stop. In the affluent and relaxed art environment that he has established and managed by himself over the years, Ding Yi has made it a goal to have a major solo exhibition every year. To meet that goal, he must create new works according to the exhibition space and context in which the exhibition is held. With all these demands he has for himself, Ding Yi mobilizes all his energy, passion, and integrity to carry out his work. Although the issues that bothered him at the beginning of his career no longer dominate his thought on art, Ding Yi still feels that “there is always a relationship between the image on the canvas and the spirituality you’re seeking. Sometimes, the more complex you make the image, the more you detract from the content of the work. I keep thinking about Malevich’s white-on-white work. When I compare my work with his, I can’t help but feel my own is full of waffle. It’s really difficult to attain that kind of absolute standard, as he did. My reaction to that is to ask: where’s the new spirituality? How do you express it? What method should you use? The answer of course, is to use your own method – not Malevich’s – and use it to extract something more powerful for your painting.”[ Ibid.]

Ding Yi: The Cross-Style

Reflecting on his journey that has lasted for more than thirty years, Ding Yi made the following statement: “My so-called style is constructed by these three factors: first, the grid, where the whole picture is made; second, the lines, everything is expressed in lines; third, the cross symbol or the 米 symbol, these are the three things make up my distinct style.”[ Ibid. p. 18-19] Throughout Ding Yi's artistic career since the 1980s, we can see that like many of his contemporaries who entered the art field during the mid-to-late 1980s, they currently find themselves amid a contemporary cultural scene undergoing dramatic changes. At the same time, they are faced with the cultural differences between the East and the West, caught in a tug-of-war between tradition and modernity, and left with the historical legacy of the cultural order established since the foundation of the new PRC. Therefore, they must constantly adjust themselves to establish a foothold. After years of long hours toiling and exploring, Ding Yi has managed to create a contemporary vocabulary of his own and a model for Chinese artists to achieve contemporaneity. Through continuous self-imposed demands and constantly reinventing himself, Ding Yi's different stages of creation are bursting with vitality and vigorous capacity for artistic renewal.

Under the title of “The Cross-Style”, the exhibition and publication aim to imagine Ding Yi's creative system as a set of "fonts" generated with the "cross" as its basic element. This not only develops an ever-changing set of "fonts", but also constructs a "style" of art. It consists of an evolving set of rhetoric and grammar and is far more than just an image. Through this imagery, we can also see Ding Yi's creation as a kind of longterm "writing," using the "cross" as a typeface, with "writing" and “repetition” as the form and significance of this new "style". In Ding Yi's creative career, “The Cross-Style” is also the language he uses to "write", react and express to the art and social scene in China. Since the very beginning, Ding Yi never sought to use the "cross" as a form of identification, but rather to enrich his cultural subjectivity through specific, small or large changes and adjustments throughout each phase of his development. In his practice, Ding Yi also infuses the “Cross” with richness through his sustained production, enabling it to grow and evolve from a symbol into an ever-expanding yet highly open system.

For those who are unfamiliar with Ding Yi, or for those who may be unaware of implied dynamics of his paintings due to over-familiarity, an important hint to "reading" Ding Yi through this exhibition is to constantly appreciate the artist's determination to set up his obstacles during the creative process. It's these obstacles which drive Ding Yi and his art at every stage of development, pushing it into unforeseen directions, and form a heavy notebook of life’s experience recoded over a prolonged period of time.

After careful review of the system Ding Yi has established, we can also see the developmental path, ambitions, ideals, and unique trajectory of Chinese contemporary art over the last 30 years. It not only opens itself up to and collides with a variety of practices and experiences in the global spectacle of art, but it also actively introduces local experiences and concerns to the discussion guided by its own subjective consciousness. Facing China's art history, the state of its culture, and its social ethos, the artist tries to address and express himself with relevant methodology and syntax, hoping to promote relevant discussion, develop new cultural entities, and contribute to the language and values of globalization.

In recent years, through frequent trips to third world countries, Ding Yi has sought to augment the other facet of globalization that remains largely overshadowed by the national gaze solely focused on developed countries. Hoping to construct a system rooted in global awareness[ Ibid. p. 12], he once said "In 1998, I'd view things from a Chinese-centric angle, and I could only see my own world. I hope that I've put my world, and China, under the international scope.”In such Ding Yi hope his paintings will have a certain explosive energy, and be able to preserve some kind of cultural ambition of his time.

Carol Lu Yinghua
August 2020

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Related Exhibitions:
The Cross Style


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