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Shanghai's 'Advance' into Allover

Author: Roy Forward 2002

It has so far gone unremarked that Shanghai is home to an art style of allover patterning. Hailed in the past as a centre of Political Pop, it may come as a surprise that China's biggest and most dynamic city has now gone apolitical, or even anti-political.

Hanart T Z Gallery's 1993 exhibition catalogue, China's New Art, Post-1989, started out bravely, its first category of artists being 'Political Pop,' in which four of the sixteen artists were based in Shanghai. The catalogue then sank into the slough of despond, through 'Cynical Realism: Irreverence and Malaise,' 'The Wounded Romantic Spirit,' 'Emotional Bondage: Fetishism and Sado-Masochism,' and 'Ritual and Purgation: Endgame Art,' in none of which a single Shanghai artist appeared.

Its final section, however, was headed, 'Introspection and Retreat into Formalism: New Abstract Art,' which nicely balanced the negativism of 'Retreat' with the hope of the 'New,' and here Ding Yi appeared as Shanghai's sole representative, and the only exponent in the exhibition of allover patterning.

But why 'retreat'? Can a retreat ever be positive? Even in a strategic retreat, or a religious retreat, as a means to a hoped-for future advance, one is still taking a backward step.

There was also the implication that any new formalism or abstraction was an escape from the concerns and problems of the 'real' world, from politics especially, but also from such attitudinising about politics as popism, cynicism and wounded romanticism, and such game-playing as bondage, fetishism, sado-masochism, ritual and purgation.

Thus Alan Davies in trying to understand the political passivity of European immigrants after settling in Australia in the 1950s explained it as a natural reaction to their having personally experienced in their countries of origin the horrors of politics gone wrong. Once bitten, twice shy.

More than that, however, the catalogue presented the 'Retreat into Formalism' as an escape backwards, to an earlier and therefore somehow passé form of art, so that even though the abstract art may have been 'new' it could be nothing more than a tired revisiting of an exhausted style.

That such is far from the case can be seen in the work of Shen Fan, Chen Qiang, Qin Yifeng and Qu Fenguo as well as in that of Ding Yi, and to a lesser degree in the work of Zhu Xiaoming, Hou Wenyi, Ji Wenyu, Wang Yuan and Zhou Hongxiang. Born between 1952 and 1969, in 2002 these ten are between thirty-three and fifty years of age, with Hou Wenyi the only female, and the only one to have left Shanghai. Together they exemplify the belief of the German art historian Hans Sedlmayr that 'many things that are classified as "backward" might be the starting-point of real inner progress.'[1]

Some of the allover abstract pattern paintings that Shen Fan (born 1952) has been making since 1995, especially those in a single colour with a hanging or horizontal scroll format, draw on the kinds of marks made in traditional Chinese calligraphy. Others that are more densely marked look like works by Ding Yi, and very like what Pietro Dorazio was doing between 1958–65. Allowing that its borders are deliberately well inside the edges of the paper or canvas, any work by Shen Fan could have been clipped out of a larger work; and there are no features that are so obvious as to commandeer the viewer's attention at the expense of other parts of the composition. Like a Jackson Pollock drip painting, what is repeated within the painting is not a module or motif but a kind of mark-making: 'the artist is painting pictures, not just spreading pattern.'[2]

In the Folk series[3] of Zhu Xiaoming (born 1957) almost uniform brushstrokes, textures or colours cover the whole canvas, within which the wide bars of a grid frame nine rectangles. One of them has much in common with Pietro Dorazio's Smagliante II, 1982.[4]

Hou Wenyi was born in 1958 and has lived in the United States since 1987. Jonathan Hay wrote: 'A distinctive feature of her larger works is that they are built up from a basic module,' — her Change series, 1990, for instance, highlights variations in grids or rectangular modules — 'an economical principle of composition which has a long history in Chinese art, from architecture to bronze decoration.'[5]

Ji Wenyu, born 1959, often uses repeated images and patterns within borders of repeated decorations like a quilt or a carpet. Someone suggested that Ji's borders come from traditional Chinese decoration (eg red banners down the sides of doors), and even from surrounding everything with walls; they are like those often used by Miriam Schapiro, as in her The first theatre, 1979.[6]

Chen Qiang (born 1960) specialises in allover patterns of Aboriginal-like dots and little circles and horseshoes against a background of flat colour. It seems that he became familiar with Aboriginal art after he had begun painting in his own style, but that since then he may have been influenced by it. There is also some similarity with some works of Xiao Huixiang, eg Xiao's Paired figures: Emperor and Empress, 1988, which has circles and dots in bands like Meccano pieces.

Qin Yifeng (born 1961) does allovers with some resemblance to Chinese calligraphy; they are very decorative, but accomplished and complex when viewed close-up, with active flourishes with the wrist but with an overall calm effect. Some have painted vertical stripes 'over' layers of curvy or freehand patterns, sometimes in several colours, suggesting a bamboo grove, others are hard edge geometrical, and altogether there is a tremendous variety of patterns and ideas using the one basic notion. There is some resemblance to Ding Yi, but with greater freedom, confidence and daring. Qin has said, 'The basic form and foundation of all Chinese characters [writing] is a line';[7] he calls his paintings and drawings over the past eight years the Linefield series, giving each a consecutive number (eg Linefield series no. 316). Nicky Combs wrote that 'Qin weaves the vertical and curved lines to form a balanced space.'[8] Colours play an important role in the final equilibrium.

Ding Yi (born 1962) concentrates on allover patterns of straight marks forming little crosses or the Chinese character for ten. The closest analogy is with woven material, and indeed he has done some paintings on tartan cloth. Ding Yi claims on the one hand to have created a 'language that has no material form and which has nothing to say,'[9] but on the other hand that 'I want to use my brush to articulate the spiritual dimension of painting, in the artistic equivalent of the simplest, most direct language, word by word and sentence by sentence.'[10] He likens his work to scientific experiments in vision and colour. Of a painting called The Red Revolution of aesthetic appreciation he said: 'I hope that there will be nothing political seen in this red colour, but rather that it will be seen as a beautiful red colour, a red that belongs solely to the world of vision.'[11] However, his work also became less perfectionist once he discovered that 'precise rendering of the painted line/grid obstructed my freedom to respond to life and the world that surrounds me.'[12] Ding Yi's work could be mistaken for the kinds of paintings that Pietro Dorazio was making between 1958–65, such as his Murale, 1965.[13]

Wang Yuan was born in 1965. His two triangular paintings called Cover[14] are coated with irregular areas of lighter-tone brushstrokes like foliage or little clouds, with very thin scribbled lines appearing over some sections.

In many of the paintings of Qu Fenguo (born 1966) elements of irregular patterns are arranged on an invisible grid of vertical and horizontal lines (reminiscent in his more ochre works of a Fred Williams landscape). They are sometimes dense, at other times quite spare with lots of airy space. A frequent element in the patterns are shapes like tadpoles or magnified spermatozoa.

Zhou Hongxiang (born 1969) made a series of photographs called Need him or her, 2000, looking down on scads of people in huge blue expanses of water; sometimes he added grid lines, or lines joining up the people.

How can we account for the similarities between the above ten Shanghai artists? Only five of the above ten (Zhu Xiaoming, Hou Wenyi, Ji Wenyu, Qin Yifeng, Ding Yi) are known to have been born in Shanghai, two of the others (Shen Fan, Zhou Hongxiang) coming from nearby Jiangsu province, another two (Chen Qiang, Qu Fenguo) from distant Hunan and Liaoning. But three of them (Ji Wenyu, Qin Yifeng, Ding Yi) also graduated from the same Shanghai Arts and Crafts School (or Institute, also known as the Shanghai College of Applied Arts), with Ding Yi now teaching there, so one could look there for a cause of their common style. Qin Yifeng and Ding Yi also graduated from Shanghai University's College of Fine Arts (Ding Yi from the Department of Traditional Chinese Painting), and Qin Yifeng now teaches there.

Two of the others (Chen Qiang, Zhou Hongxiang) graduated from the Art Education Department of East China Normal University in Shanghai, and Zhou Hongxiang and two more (Zhu Xiaoming, Wang Yuan) teach there, so there is another link; Chen Qiang teaches at the Shanghai Institute of Engineering and Architecture. Two graduated from the Shanghai Light Industry College (Shen Fan in the Fine Arts Department, Ji Wenyu in the Decoration Department), with Shen Fan now teaching at Shanghai's Huashan School of Fine Arts, and one (Qu Fenguo) graduated from and now teaches at the Shanghai Theatre Academy. Zhu Xiaoming graduated from Shanghai Normal (or Teachers) University, and Wang Yuan from the Oil Painting Department of the Shanghai Art Institute.

Allover patterns are common in fabrics, floor tiles and wallpapers, are regarded as fairly mechanical in their reliance on repetition or the interplay of woof and weft, and are commonly thought of as decorative, and of interest more to designers and craftspeople than to practitioners of the fine arts: a supposition borne out by our ten artists often graduating from or teaching in schools of arts and crafts, light industry, and engineering and architecture. None of this, however, need have negative connotations, with everything capable of being grist to art's mill, the strong links between design and the fine arts being one of the strengths of China's art education system.

Allover patterns range from geometric to floral, rely on dots, colours or lines, may be abstract or representational. In obedience to the injunction against imagery Islamic art and architecture has made particular use of them. William Morris was a major exponent of allover designs in Victorian England, but the examples from earlier centuries most familiar to the Shanghai allover patternmakers come from China's own long history, such as those to be found on cloisonné enamel and painted porcelain bowls and vases;[15] Chen Qiang, for instance, has been interested recently in the ornamental designs on ancient Chinese stone tablets.[16]

Overwhelmingly, however, the closest precursors in Chinese culture for allover patterns in the visual arts have to be, first, the columns of characters in traditional calligraphy or just the spread of columns or rows on any page of Chinese text, a fact made explicit when Hou Wenyi made her Fuqi bei look like the regular squared patterns of Han Dynasty memorial inscriptions,[17] and second, traditional ink and wash painting, where what is repeated are misty effects, a fact recognised in Francesca Dal Lago's description of Hou Wenyi's allover abstract Blood series, 1996, as 'reminiscent of the fluid effects of traditional Chinese painting.'[18]

In the United States the term 'allover painting' was used for Jackson Pollock's drip paintings in the late 1940s and early 1950s, from the way he treated the whole canvas in a fairly uniform way, so that any idea of a top, bottom, sides or centre is lost (compare Hans Sedlmayr, Die Verlust der Mitte [The Loss of the Centre], 1948).

Around the same time Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman inaugurated Colour Field Painting, large areas of colour emphasising the 'field' of the painting over internal structures or relationships. Included in Lawrence Alloway's 1966 term 'Systemic Painting' were repetitions of simple forms, as in Kenneth Noland's Hard Edge chevron paintings.

'It was this sense of an unsullied world that came under attack by Jasper Johns, among others, first in the 1970s,' wrote Mark Rosenthal. 'In his crosshatch paintings, Johns usually juxtaposed an ostensibly neutral scheme of hatch marks along side an almost identical area in which some kind of "accident" seems to have marred the aforestated purity. John's paintings suggested abstraction had become, in some sense, dysfunctional, that its presumed innocence could no longer be maintained.'[19]

That is interesting, because one psychoanalytic reading of Pollock is that he suffered from a psychotic failure to develop a self separate from other people and things, deriving from his lack of a strong father with whom he could have identified and who would have counterbalanced his all-powerful mother: 'In the allover paintings all internal boundaries are lost, implying the lack of any ability to differentiate self-image and object image.'[20]

On the other hand, Yve-Alain Bois noted in Henri Matisse's work an alloverness, an equality between all of its parts that is very democratic: 'our gaze is forbidden to focus on any particular area of the canvas;'[21] so our eyes cannot rest; we are always distracted; there is no centring, all of which contributes to a spreading out and hence flattening of the picture.

At another time he went on:

Matisse has a conception of the gaze which is very diffuse — very decentred, allover...I think that Matisse's decorative[ness] stems from an idea which has a lot to do with decenteredness, diffusion, and diffraction...He is trying to translate into the visual realm something that will branch out to all the different senses. And his way of doing so is by decentralizing the field of vision...Already, in 1908, he says: 'Expression, for me, does not reside in passions glowing in a human face...The entire arrangement of my picture is expressive.' And he says at the same time that expression and decoration are the same things. So the decorative for him is something which has to do with taking into account all the areas of the canvas — making sure that no particular area takes a major share of attention — so that your mode of address is multidirectional. Which, because it is so diffused and so allover, will actually have a kind of subliminal effect.[22]

In 1990 the Aboriginal artist Emily Kam Kngwarrey (or Kame Kngwarreye) was asked to explain the stories of her paintings, and she replied, with the help of a translator: '[My paintings are the] whole lot, that's all, whole lot…That's what I paint: whole lot.'[23] By 'whole lot' she may in part have been indicating her arrival at a stage of wholeness, a seamless totality in which petty divisions no longer signified, an idea that fits in well with the allover diffusion in many of her paintings.

A picture by Chen Qiang, said Xiao Kaiyu, 'looks like a clipping from an even larger one,'[24] and the same could be said of all our artists. The conceit releases the viewer into the larger field from which the painting under observation has been cut, but thereby loses William Butler Yeats's form that would be 'full, sphere-like, single,'[25] or T.S. Eliot's 'aura around a bright clear centre,'[26] or James Joyce's vision of the aesthetic image 'as one thing…self-bounded and self-contained…[in a] luminous silent stasis of aesthetic pleasure.'[27] In like vein John Berger thought that the way a painting presents us with a self-contained world within a frame subliminally conveys a welcome antidote to our fear of the universe's boundless and annihilating spaces.[28] 'Space is inhabited. The universe is full and closed,' wrote Franck Serrano of Ji Wenyu's paintings.[29]

One could just as well argue that the absence of a frame, or the perceived absence of edges in a large work, or the sense in an allover patterned work that it continues beyond its perceived edges, might engender a feeling of unfettered freedom in a limitless cosmos. 'The life of the consciousness is boundless,' said Oskar Kokoschka.[30]

The precursors in the use of allover patterns in the West after 1910 were Piet Mondrian and Theo van Doesburg, then Joan Miró around 1940. Those who made allover patterns from the 1950s to the 1970s include Yaacov Agam, Richard Anuskiewicz, Fernandez Arman, Ralph Balson, Jean Bazaine, Sergio de Camargo, Giuseppe Capogrossi, Enrico Castellani, Carlos Cruz-Diez, Pietro Dorazio, Jean Dubuffet, Hans Hartung, Jasper Johns, Alun Leach-Jones, Alfred Manessier, Agnes Martin, Almir Mavignier, James Olitski, Larry Poons, Ad Reinhardt, Bridget Riley, Jean-Paul Riopelle, Miriam Schapiro, Peter Sedgley, Frank Stella, Mark Tobey, Cy Twombly, Gunther Uecker, Victor Vasarely, Andy Warhol, Frank Zakanitch.

Some of these laid their patterns on to grids, others did not. Zhu Xiaoming, Ding Yi and Qu Fenguo use grids in their work to varying degrees. Grids in modernist art reminded Rosalind Krauss of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century treatises on perspective in which Paolo Uccello, Leonardo da Vinci or Albrecht Dürer used perspective lattices to map the real world on to the surface of a painting.[31] In the 1960s there had been an emphasis on the basic geometry of grids in the work of American Minimalists such as Carl Andre and Sol LeWitt.

In October 1994 Rachel Kent curated an exhibition called 'Reinventing the Grid' at the Robert Lindsay Gallery, Melbourne, featuring Australian artists Angela Brennan, Ian Burn, Debra Dawes, Rosalie Gascoigne, Dale Hickey, Robert Hunter, Robert Jacks, Martin King, Hilarie Mais, Deborah Ostrow, Robert Owen, Louise Paramor, Rodney Spooner and John Young.

Wang Guangyi, when questioned at the China/Avant-Garde exhibition in Beijing in February 1989 about his Mao Zedong no. 1, explained to the official censor that the grid over Mao's three portraits stood for rationalism, his possibly tongue-in-cheek working philosophy at the time being to 'liquidate the enthusiasm of humanism';[32] Gao Minglu, however, saw it as 'the revolutionary leader and the utopia he stood for...imprisoned within the measurable confines of an analytic frame.'[33] At another tangent is the practice of Guan Wei. Although he used twenty-four separate canvases for his Looking for home, 2000, he directed that a ten-centimetre gap be left between them when hung on the wall, to allow room for qi (Chinese for air, breath, spirit). At yet another extreme is Wei's fellow-countryman and fellow-Australian resident Liu Xiao Xian, who said of his Reincarnation—Mao, Buddha and I, 1998, that the grid formed by the 300 panels was not his choice, but was dictated by the limits of the equipment he worked with; in later and much bigger works he was able to reduce the number of panels to nine.

A consensus is building on the reasons for allover patterning's popularity in Shanghai. First, its calmness is seen as an appropriate response to Shanghai's hubbub. Thus Lorenz Helbling: 'Ding Yi's works contrast strongly with the rapid change of Shanghai. His monotonous working style, meticulously putting layer over layer of strokes on the paper or canvas, is a way to live, a way to keep a clear mind amid the pounding turmoil of this relentless city';[34] and Dieter Ronte: 'When I first visited Shen Fan's studio in 1995 and saw his paintings, I was immediately gripped. I grew silent, forgot Shanghai's noise and commotion...'[35]

Second, it is seen as an almost unique coinciding of Eastern and Western sensibilities. Helbling: 'Like traditional Chinese paintings, [Ding Yi's paintings] draw in viewers, but offer no centre. The eye cannot focus, but must be active and travel the paths of his brushstrokes.'[36] As we have seen above, it could just as well be said that they are like much Western abstract painting earlier in the twentieth century.

Third, it provides the same as all religions: calmness, repetition, ritual, self-abnegation, structure within boundlessness. Ronte found in Shen Fan's work 'a type of monastic silence, which led me to ponder new questions and to reflect on myself.'[37] Helbling says of Ding Yi's work that 'The subtle variations within the repetition become a kind of meditation, for both the artist and the viewer.'[38]

Finally, one claim implicit in the work of China's abstract artists, especially of those whose allover patterns hold the viewer closely to visual observation, is that art can become a powerful force only when it is separated from social concerns and political ideologies.[39]

Ronte felt of Shen Fan's work that 'Here was the opposite of Chinese Pop Art, or of the politically charged images, or the ironic statements, the melancholic or sad paintings. Here I found a pictorial creativity at rest with itself, a creativity able to express itself openly and precisely, backwards and forwards, linking many different times while operating completely self-sufficiently...'[40]

If any country deserves to be able to feel that there is more to life than politics it is China. Beijing so strenuously denies itself that pleasure, that partly by default the lead has fallen to Shanghai.


[1] Hans Sedlmayr, Art in Crisis: The Lost Center, translated by Brian Battershaw, Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1958, p.251; first pub. in German as Die Verlust der Mitte [The Loss of the Centre], 1948.

[2] Dieter Ronte, 'Shen Fan,' August 1996,

[3] Two of which are reproduced in East China Normal University Art Education Department, ed., Zhu Xiaoming, 2001, pp.24–25.

[4] Reproduced in Dorazio, exhibition catalogue, Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna, Rome, pub. Milan: Electa, 1983, p.91.

[5] Jonathan Hay, 'Ambivalent Icons: Works by Five Chinese Artists Based in the United States,' Orientations, 23: 7, July 1992, pp.37–43: this quote from pp.41–42.

[6] Reproduced in Edward Lucie-Smith, Art Today, 2nd, enlarged edition, Oxford: Phaidon, 1983, p.492.

[7] Quoted in Nicky Combs, 'Control/Chance 2000: Qin Yifeng's Linefield Series,' April 2000,

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ding Yi, quoted in Li Xu, 'Ding Yi,' First Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art, Brisbane, 1993,

[10] Ding Yi, quoted in Li Xu, 1993; compare the translation in China's New Art, Post-1989, catalogue, Hanart T Z Gallery, Hong Kong, 1993, p.222.

[11] China's New Art, Post-1989, p.222.

[12] Ding Yi, quoted in Li Xu, 1993.

[13] Reproduced in Lucie-Smith, 1983, p.298.

[14] Reproduced in East China Normal University Art Education Department, ed., Zhu Xiaoming, 2001, pp.20–21.

[15] Owen Jones, Examples of Chinese Ornament, New York: Dover, 1981, based on the 1867 edition, London: S. & T. Gilbert.

[16] Xiao Kaiyu, 'On Chen Qiang's Artistic Creation,' in Chen Qiang 2001, exhibition catalogue, Aura Gallery, Shanghai, 2001, pp.6–8: see p.8.

[17] Kuiyi Shen, 'Playing the Game of Word, Icon, and Meaning,'; see also

[18] Francesca Dal Lago, 'Against the Tide,' Art AsiaPacific, no. 17, 1998, p.100.

[19] Mark Rosenthal, 'Critiques of Pure Abstraction,', 1999.

[20] Donald Kuspit, Signs of Psyche in Modern and Postmodern Art, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993, p.131.

[21] Yve-Alain Bois, Matisse and Picasso, Paris: Flammarion, 1998, p.29.

[22] Linda Nochlin & Yve-Alain Bois, 'Picasso and Matisse: A Gentle Rivalry,' Artforum, 37: 6, February 1999, pp.70–77, 114–15: see pp.75, 114.

[23] Emily Kam Kngwarray in an interview with Rodney Gooch, Soakage Bore, 1990, with translation assistance by Kathleen Petyarre, cited in Michael Boulter, The Art of Utopia: A New Direction in Contemporary Aboriginal Art, Sydney: Craftsman House, 1991, pp.61 and 170 as 'Courtesy of CAAMA Shop,' Alice Springs (CAAMA is the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association.

[24] Xiao Kaiyu, 'On Chen Qiang's Artistic Creation,' in Chen Qiang 2001, exhibition catalogue, Aura Gallery, Shanghai, 2001, pp.6–8: see p.7.

[25] Marjorie Perloff, The Futurist Moment: Avant-Garde, Avant Guerre, and the Language of Rupture, Chicago & London: Chicago University Press, 1987, p.72.

[26] Ibid.

[27] James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, New York: Viking, 1965 (first pub. 1916), pp.212–13.

[28] John Berger, The White Bird, ed. Lloyd Spencer, London: Hogarth, 1988, pp.212–18.

[29] Franck Serrano, 'Unexpected Liaisons,'

[30] Edith Hoffmann, Kokoschka: Life and Work, London: Faber & Faber, 1947, p.285.

[31] Rosalind Krauss, 'Grids,' October, no. 9, Summer 1979, pp.51–64: see p.52; reprinted in Rosalind E. Krauss, The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1985, pp.8–22: see p.10; cf. pp.157–62.

[32] Cited in Gao Minglu, 'From Elite to Small Man: The Many Faces of a Transitional Avant-Garde in Mainland China,' in Gao Minglu, ed., New Chinese Art: Inside Out, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998, pp.149–66: see p.151.

[33] Ibid., p.152.

[34] Lorenz Helbling, '15 x Red by Ding Yi,' June 1996,

[35] Ronte, 1996.

[36] Helbling, 1996.

[37] Ronte, 1996.

[38] Helbling, 1996.

[39] A paraphrase of Zhang Xiaoling & Meng Louxin, 'Rational Abstract: The World of Non-Meaning Visionary Structure,' in Chen Qiang 2001, exhibition catalogue, Aura Gallery, Shanghai, 2001, pp.12–15: see p.15.

[40] Ronte, 1996.

Roy Forward, Australian National University CCE,

© Copyright Roy Forward 2002


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