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Ding Yi: Towards a New Dynamism

Author: Hettie Judah 2017-03-23

        There’s a sense of acceleration within Ding Yi’s recent works. Not in the speed of their creation – the loose-lined ‘x’ and ‘+’ components from which these vast picture planes are constructed are all the fruit of meditative hand application – but in the scorching bright cut marks that slice through the layers of paint and etch into the supporting wood. Against the oily, inky black of the paintings’ ground, the stark brightness of these exposed lines of wood and their attendant layers of fluorescent paint perform like superhighways for the eye, leading the gaze to zip along from one point to another.
        Following a number of earlier series painted and drawn onto unexpected supports such as corrugated cardboard, unsized canvas, furniture, and, since 1997, prefabricated tartan, in this exhibition – the artist’s first with Timothy Taylor – Ding Yi presents seven major new works each made on basswood. Ding’s first large works on wood were created as a visual riposte to the gallery spaces at the Long Museum in Shanghai, site of his mid-career retrospective in 2015. ‘There is an extremely tall space in the museum, which is over nine metres high, and the grey-coloured cement walls create an atmosphere that is cold and hard. Canvas was not able to show the strengths of the paintings in such a space, so I thought about using wood boards instead to conquer the space.’①
        While chosen for its atmospheric, physical impact, in offering the possibility of a carved, almost sculptural aspect, wood has opened up a new field of exploration, and with it, a new era in Ding’s practice: one that marks a significant new phase of his ongoing exploration of the complex relationship between surface and optical planes, into what literally lies beneath. For where the crosses that Ding has worked with since the late 1980s usually perform as universal signifiers of combinative construction – the cement between bricks, a knot in two threads, plaited reeds, a road junction – these woodcut marks are more like excavations.
        In this latest suite of works, Ding has built up layers of paint on the wooden surface – four works in yellow, green and black; three in orange, red and black – applied with a wide brush in varying thicknesses. In some – notably Appearance of Crosses 2016-6 (2016) – the base layers of paint are thick and uneven. The ridges of impasto in the black ground create a staccato effect in the white grid lines that are painted lightly across them: the laden paintbrush has skipped over the surface, touching only the crests of each underlying brushstroke. Beneath the dark surface, accretions of neon paint become sites of latent power – seething-hot colour waiting to be released by the slice of a woodblock cutter. ‘I wanted to create an embryonic energy in these works rather than something that has grown and gone away,’  Ding has said.②
        This latency, this sense of forces waiting to be unleashed, is there too in the works’ discreet referencing of cityscapes. While these are not paintings of places, they perform compellingly as dynamic, almost kinetic portraits of ‘non-places’: aerial, night-time snapshots of what Marc Augé terms the ‘city world’③, sliced up routes and boundaries, places of movement and human intermingling, all under bright and neon lights. Within each painting, the black layer, which Ding likens to ‘a blackboard, or a blank stone tablet,’ ④ occupies a position akin to that of the ground beneath our feet. Above the surface there is open space for construction; beneath it is a hidden world, like archaeological traces of a city, which can only be revealed and brought into conscious memory by breaking the surface. Ding’s works have long suggested the passing of time and the bustle and motion of human life. Their regularly bright – and, since the early 2000s, often neon – colour palettes, and the relentless proliferation of cross markings across their surfaces have, in various series, recalled the shifting crowds and pulsing lights of the modern networked city. ‘Though I am an abstract artist, in recent years I have started to take note of the urban development of Shanghai,’  he has said.⑤
        The geographer Yi-Fu Tuan draws explicit links between the innate human tendency for pattern recognition, the ability to visualise virtual concepts and the structuring of built environments: ‘Human beings not only discern geometric patterns in nature and create abstract spaces in the mind, they also try to embody their feelings, images and thoughts in tangible material.⑥ The result is sculptural and architectural space, and on a large scale, the planned city’.  Ding Yi’s Appearance of Crosses 2016-4 – 2016-10 evoke all these elements of intellectual and sensory perception: the city, virtual space, networks of human relationships, but perhaps above all the desire of the roving eye to attribute logic and order to otherwise abstract and enigmatic arrangements of shapes and patterns.
       Ding Yi is fascinated by design and pattern in their broadest and deepest senses. This is not something that the artist undertakes with an untutored eye: ‘Because I majored in design at the Shanghai Arts and Crafts Institute, design was a constant influence for me, and I wanted to graft art and design together.’ ⑦The earliest Appearance of Crosses paintings borrowed from the visual languages of printing and graphic design: the cross itself was taken from a technical mark used in offset printing, and some of the first works were made using precision tools that would remove any possibility of a painterly effect. ⑧The early design references in Ding’s works had a subversive edge, gently undermining taboos in the avant-garde art world against craft and applied artforms.  ⑨His early experiments with texture, porosity and other variations in his painting surfaces produced a soft, worn effect in works such as Appearance of Crosses 1997-B21 – 1997-B24 (1997) that Cao Weijun has described as ‘very much like an ancient textile just excavated from a tomb’⑩.  Works on paper from this time – notably Appearance of Crosses 1995-B13 and 1995-B21 (both 1995) – recall samples of hand weaving: the layered grids suggesting meshes of fine coloured threads, disintegrating into wisps of filament at the edges.
       Ding’s subsequent use of tartan cloth was, initially, less an engagement with another craft tradition than with a readymade set of grids and crosses: a base structure against which his ‘single unit of grid’ could build up ‘like brushwork that combines to form the whole image’11.  In Appearance of Crosses 2000-8 and 2000-9 (both 2000) the tartan is still visible as a faint ghost around the margins of Ding’s painting, in which fields of shifting pattern and coloration demarcate planes, panes and zones.
       The cultural depth in the use of tartan in Ding’s practice is rooted in the long and complex history of trade between Scotland and China. In the second half of the nineteenth century, the enforced opening of the ‘Treaty Ports’ to Western trade made Shanghai and its surrounding region – long the lodestar for fashionable dress in greater China – the entry point for European textiles , among them plaid12. Traditional Scottish tartan was a rough woollen cloth, the colour of its yarn derived from locally available plant sources. Each region having subtly different vegetation, the colours of the tartan came to be directly associated with the people of that place. Much later specific woven patterns and colorations came to be formally associated with individual Scottish clans. Following an eighty-year period in which the wearing of tartan was banned in Scotland, in the 1820s the tartan industry was reborn. By the time the British established the first Treaty Ports some twenty years later, plaid cloth had been recast as a distinctive export product.
       These historical associations on some level fed into Ding’s later use of tartan textiles: ‘The representation of social and culturally critical elements grew […] I wanted to touch issues such as “intercultural misreading” in my works.’13 The reds, yellows and greens used by Ding echo those of existing tartan designs, and the arrangement of the grids suggests conventions of textile patternmaking – borders, grounds and motifs – that have somehow come adrift from their dominant symmetry. These works suggest products of a new hybridity, in which the global marketplace has become a cultural echo chamber of appropriations and misreadings.
       By 2002, still sometimes working on tartan, Ding’s works moved yet further beyond the realms of static, fixed patterns, increasingly acquiring a suggestion of motion: ‘I wanted to demonstrate the clamour and excitement of this city in my works with fluorescent colours reflecting the materialised prosperity and fashionableness and the chaos and nihility behind the crosses’14.  In some paintings, vertical bands scud downwards like scrolling electronic billboards, or tumbling shapes in an electronic game. In others there is a sense of the rush hour, with the centre of the canvas becoming a junction point with strips of coloured crosses streaking towards and away from it. The junction sequence reaches its ultimate expression in multi-panel works such as Appearance of Crosses 2008-21 (2008). The shock of the white cross of wall that emerges between this grouping of panels finds an echo in the gouged intersections of Ding’s most recent series: in both there is a sense of exposure that comes almost like an explosive spark amid the suggestion of dynamic motion.
       The works on show here in London, Appearance of Crosses 2016¬¬-4 – 2016-10, continue his unwavering exploration of abstraction and pattern-generation in relation to notions of the city, to design histories and to craft traditions, while perhaps also reflecting his knowledge and experience of working on textiles. From afar, they suggest magnified cloth ¬– perhaps tweed or tartan – with the cross-markings standing in for the interlacing of warp and weft, and the scattered patches of colour hinting at a wider pattern. Under intimate scrutiny the complex layers of marks in different colours and lustres, and the new depth created by carving, suggest a tightly woven textile-like field. By learning about and employing woodblock carving he revisits and expands his interest in traditional craft forms and techniques, which include ‘wood carving, bas relief, seal cutting, inscription, and carved polychrome lacquer’. Rather than making a woodblock work per se, however, Ding uses these skills in the service of his painting practice in order to generate ‘a more dynamic role […] For me, to experiment with different materials is a method to explore painting, as well as to break through my own painting language’. 15

①Interview with the author conducted via email, 23 March 2017
②From ‘A Conversation between Shane McCausland and Ding Yi’, April 2015, in Ding Yi: What’s Left to Appear, catalogue published on the occasion of the exhibition at the Long Museum, Shanghai (2015)
③Marc Augé, Non-Places: An Introduction to Supermodernity, second edition (Verso Books, 2008)
④Interview with the author conducted via email, 23 March 2017
⑤From ‘A Conversation between Shane McCausland and Ding Yi’
⑥Yi-Fu Tuan, Space and Place: the Perspective of Experience (University of Minnesota Press, 1977)
⑦‘A Ding Yi interview by Mathieu Borysevicz’, Art Changsha Ding Yi (Hunan Fine Art Publishing House, 2013)
⑧Cao Weijun, ‘Ding Yi: The Magician of Crosses’, Yishu: Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art, Vol 7, No. 5 (Sep¬–Oct 2008)
11 Interview with the author conducted via email, 23 March 2017
12 Robert Ross, Clothing: A Global History (Polity Press, Cambridge, 2008)
13 Cao Weijun, preparatory interview with Ding Yi, 10 November 2007 (unpublished)
14 ibid.
15 Interview with the author conducted via email, 23 March 2017

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