Ding Yi's painting process.

By Monica Dematte, March 1994

The deliberate process of simplification starts for Ding Yi () with the choice of his name, very essential in structure, which replaces the previous Ding Rong ()(1). This decision, taken in the mid Eighties, echoes a theory which would determine the evolution of his artistic life.

In his approach he wants everything to be started in the simplest structure, to get rid of heavy, complicated cultural meanings and rituals.

Fruit of great coherence, Ding Yi's views about art, are a relevant part of his whole lifestyle.

The artist's experience proceeds from the Soviet realism he first saw in his childhood, to the early knowledge of impressionism and the western art trends that followed, then focuses on Maurice Utrillo's works, on which he deepens the very technique of oil painting, leading then to his first abstract experiments in 1983. While architectural structures and perspectives are his favorite subjects in the figurative style, the early abstract painting contain some fixed patterns which are later widely developed.

Graduating in 1983 from the Shanghai Arts and Crafts Institute, DingYi decided then to study traditional Chinese painting, mostly as a way to understand his country's artistic and cultural background. At that time, he was very impressed by Zhao Wuji's works; he saw them as a way to mix Chinese and western experience, considering this an essential achievement for contemporary art.

The study of Chinese painting led him to the conclusion that this traditional expression neglects what for him has become the most relevant aspect of artistic creation, the visual sense (shijue ). In Chinese ink paintings, what really matters are the cultural references, the atmosphere, the use of a codified language, while little attention is paid to the response of the viewer's eye.

Aiming at an artistic expression which can be appreciated by the widest possible audience, without socio-cultural limitations (somehow sharing the ideals of the earlier painter Fernand Leger), DingYi considers the primacy of the pure act of seeing as the way to reach this achievement. This basic idea is developed slowly in the pictorial evolution and concretely found in the paintings themselves.

Simplification and simplicity

Starting from the simplest: a proposal which Ding Yi applies to all aspects of his art. 

Neglecting the use of oils and, shifting to the abstract, he first chose the black Chinese ink on paper. His way isn't orthodox at all, as the traces geometric surfaces with the help of wide square brushes, obliterating any performance of virtuosity and technical skill. Later on he uses acrylic paints on canvas.

The start of the " Cross series"(ʮʾϵ), which still lasts, dates back to 1988. This series originating from the artist's theory, is somehow a conceptual nucleus which is going to be experienced in a purely pictorial medium.

"ʮ" is a shape used in printmaking to define the measures of a surface, dividing the sheet of paper into many squares through the precise disposition of crosses all over. It is a symbol of exactness and at the same time the negation of any subjective expression. It is also extremely simple and essential in its appearance. It can be universally recognized, and doesn't carry any specific cultural implication. Due to these factors, Ding Yi finds the "Cross" shape very suitable to express his personal idea about art.

The first painting of the "cross series" is divided into Three stripes: yellow, blue and red (the basics), and defined with black crosses. Everything is precisely arranged with the help of a ruler, in a very aseptic way. The next work contains the colors of the rainbow better, those of Newton's theory on light), while the third is parted into three different tonalities of light blue. The appearance of this works is closer to a scientific diagram than to an artistic composition. The colors are not chosen according to the well known theories formulated by the Impressionists or, later, by Matisse: rather, they follow the physical law of the light. The brushwork disappears into homogeneous portions of colorful surfaces.

Entering into a period of complete devotion to the development of the "cross series" marks the finding of a truly individual way, the artistic world. From now on the artist doesn't owe much to neither the Chinese nor the Western art scene. He begins a introspective phase of intense, tiresome work which has even caused him some physical injuries.


Ding Yi's "experiments" (the artist likes to compare his activity to the one of a scientist) are slowly adding new elements. He still uses the ruler (or, sometimes, adhesive tape) to trace the perfectly even stripes, but soon he enriches the "cross" with diagonals, and the flat surface with various layers of colors which give a sense of depth and perspective. The choice to begin with an evenly flat surface, which in the artist's thought is the more adequate to the abstraction's complete lack of verisimilitude, is slightly giving place to a sort of "trompe l'oeil" effect. The paintings are becoming more and more complicated, the artist employs a wide range of colors, without regard to their relationship. At this point, oblivious of both artistic and scientific laws, he chooses to pick the tubes of acrylics randomly, in a way which resembles much of what happens in nature. In the extremely artificial, apparently calculated evidence of these paintings, the "spontaneous" element, which Ding Yi considers now one of the most important in his art theory, begins to timidly appear.

The growing complexity of the works which forces the artist to various tools assuring accuracy, leads then to a very rich visual result. The eyes follow restlessly the alternation of stripes, colors, layers, and the plain evidence of the initial "cross series" has given way to an endless discovery of new effects and patterns. It is a pleasure, a playful enjoyment which requires the viewer to glance again and again at the pictorial surface.

The link between the artist and his work, emphasized and enhanced through a prolonged, strenuous physical contact and labor, has been established during the patient repetition of actions. The viewer may decide to catch only a general impression, or to go deeper into the canvas, entering somehow in its amazing, colorful world.

At the same time, Ding Yi dedicates some of his time to the works on paper, smaller and quicker. He uses any kind of tools; pencils, ball pens, etc. It is here that he experiments with new effects and combinations, sometimes consciously achieved, other times the fruit of chance. The titles of both works on paper and on canvas are just progressive numbers, added, together with the year, to the general definition: "cross series".

By the first half of 1991, Ding Yi felt that he reached a sort of climax. The three paintings completed in that period look somehow perfect in their genre, and therefore insuperable.

Perceiving a kind of danger in the satisfaction for his own achievement, he decides then to abruptly leave this static condition and to give himself a new challenge, starting from a new, unexplored point.


The new phase he is now ready to begin has been slowly prepared through the precedent long practice. The concreteness of an everyday effort is bringing along a new consciousness firmly emergent from the painting activity.

"New phase" doesn't mean a radical change in terms of materials or general outlook. It is something apparently more subtle, still being quite revolutionary in its implications.

"The artist has been looking for rid of subjective expressions and cultural references. Pursuing this aim, he has used ruler and adhesive tape, since these media can give a precise, scientific appearance. At this point he somehow feels that "accuracy" and "correctness" should become, are becoming, an interior quality of his mind, of his whole being . Having achieved this status, there is no need to depend on exteriority, appearance or even tools.

The "natural", spontaneous aspect becomes here the most relevant part of his art. It is necessary to possess a mature clearness and an intimate knowledge of life to be able to face its complete unpredictability, without needing support from the outside. The same need occurs to Ding Yi in order to be able to go further, to superate an equilibrium and accept a new uncertainty.

Abandoning the straightness of lines and the exact division of the surface, the artist now chooses free hand. The first work of this phase shows a great change, even though the "cross" shape is still there, and the patterns are mainly the same. A large number of colors are employed in careless brushstrokes, and casuality seems to determine the whole effect.

Keeping the overall structure without the aid of any previous frame, only recalling his long concrete experience, Ding Yi modifies radically, but in a "conservative" way, from the inside, his painting technique. It is like a return to the original chaos, to a "muddy soil", as the artist says; a "low" status for art in opposition to any pretension of aristocracy. A "pre-cultural" condition which, again, wishes to be perceived and enjoyed by the very eyes for its self-sufficient richness.

The artist has dedicated several months to the new "free" style, quickly becoming very familiar with it and therefore finding his work very easy. However, this lightness soon becomes unbearable. Ding Yi fears any condition which seems to be too comfortable, too familiar. He doesn't want to lose contact with the canvas; he still wishes to face new hardships, so that he can feel a close communion with the work and the materials. He likes to overcome new impasses, again and again.

So in 1992 he started to use the negative pattern of the "cross" shape, both in his canvas and in the works on paper. It is a motive which requires of him a new discipline, and prolongs now about sixteen strokes are needed to complete the usual "cross" shape, which appears as the left-over white space amongst eight small angles.

But this new pattern doesn't completely take the place of the former style; the works show both positive and negative "cross" shapes; sometimes even coexistent in the same painting. Ding Yi realizes that is approach has now become spontaneous, and he just follows the direction that every work seem to suggest to him, with an inner coherence.

The artist is still considering, at the same time, one of the problems which most interest him from the very beginning of his activity. He wants to find a way to create works of art that can appeal to a wide audience, he wishes that the common viewers, those who are usually excluded from the fruition of contemporary art, would feel completely at easy in front of his paintings, and choose them as a familiar presence in their everyday life. This idea looks for a new way to be concretized through the employment of traditional supports such as Chinese fans.

For several centuries until even now it has been very common in China to paint and write some calligraphy on fans. Then why should this means look new in Ding Yi's eyes?

Appreciation of a painted fan is dense with cultural meanings: The very way to unfold it - slowly, from one side to the other - causes the viewer to perceive it just as a book, to "read" it, to interpret the components of the codified pictorial language. The presence of calligraphied poems is evidence of the "cultivated" aspect of the support: here, the literary meaning overcomes the appearance, no matter how important the skill of the calligrapher. The viewer is required to "read" the artwork, not to "look" at it, and the artist "writes' it rather than "making" it. Even the words used in traditional Chinese painting, like "xie yi" reinforce this priority.

Instead, Ding Yi wants the viewer simply to "look" at his painted fans. The "cross" shape covers the faceted surface, usually black with tint, with either colorful or simply white brushstrokes. The artist now has to solve a new problem, due to the tri-dimensional effect of the support, and to the decreasing size of it, from the upper wider part to the narrower basis. Here a real perspective is involved, enriching the original pattern and its perception. Still, these technical matters hardly concern the user of the fan, whose attention is captured by the appearance.

There's nothing to read on these fans (beside the signature of the artist), nor to decode. They may be enjoyed for their beautiful decorative effect and for their practical refreshing use. No matter how many thoughts about art and technical skill lay underneath, the "ingenuous" owner will appreciate the tool for the rather concrete reasons he spontaneously identifies in it.

Recently Ding Yi has started to use another medium, also connected to the Chinese past: the folding screen. Its wide surface has traditionally rendered it suitable to narrative painting; the succession of enclosed portions is likely to give the sense of time passing. Again, the artist deliberately disconnects the support from previous uses, beyond the practical ones. The perspective differs here from the fans, the scale is larger and the painter will once again have to face a new challenge.

The use of objects found in everyday life, the non-pretentious appearance which combines concreteness and decorative effect, all these aspects enable Ding Yi's work to enter into every house, without regard to cultural and national background. Still, he isn't simplifying his art in order to render it more accessible to the "masses": his work has found a subtler way, without compromise, to become appealing.

Materials, texture, nature

In Spring '93 the restless quest for new effects and enrichments of the pictorial surface has lead Ding Yi to paint directly on the canvas, without a colored background and even without having it treated with the usual fixative glue. The very texture of the rough jute and its original brownish color become then evident and determine the result of the painting. The brushstrokes, touching the uneven and dry surface lack in fluidity and don't run easily; they deposit at once their pigments and need them a new immersion in the tint. The dryness and oddity of the result contrast with the smooth evenness of the former works, and suggest new developments.

In autumn of the same year the artist begins to use charcoal on top of the habitual acrylic tints. Black, fine strokes appear therefore on the "cross" shapes, adding complexity. But he soon realizes that the two materials are so different in texture and rendering, they are clearly discordant. Thinking of another possibility, he suddenly figures out the employment of chalk. Charcoal and chalk seem to match well: their nature is alike, and so is their reaction to the canvas. Some of the works have now a background of charcoal on non-treated canvas, while others keep the original color of the jute, and elaborate on it variously colored repetitions of the "cross" shape. The combination of these three materials looks very natural, very "original", and reveals rich implications, both visual and in content.

The painter realizes that charcoal and chalk share the common characteristic of a "hard touch", completely different from the traditional soft brushstrokes, either Chinese or western. However, when the stick touches the canvas, its nature changes and becomes powdery, spreading in a limited yet unpredictable way. It is a strange effect which somehow reminds one of the indefiniteness of a foggy atmosphere. It is also something which goes beyond the control of the painter, the results of which are therefore even more spontaneous and non-orthodox.

The use of natural materials responds to Ding Yi's opposition to the industrial society and environment, where chemical compounds replace the organic ones, and human beings seem to be somehow missing the sense of their origin. Moreover, the artist's choice carries with it a new technical challenge: the finding of a way to fix the dry and subtle charcoal and chalk on the rough canvas, so that the painting can last.

The passing of time can destroy architecture, environments, artworks, or rather keep them alive and allow new and old, nature and artifice to mingle with each other. Ding Yi feels that there is much in the past which is worth preserving, without feeling oppressed by it. Maybe his recent trip to Italy has influenced him in this respect.

Ding Yi considers himself a "non-intelligent' person, meaning with 'intelligence" a quality which enables people to be very quick in the acquisition of their knowledge. Instead, he seems to need time and a slow, meditative way to approach any aspect of life and, therefore, art. He would rather be in harmony with the rhythm of what can be considered a concrete, physical experience, in search of depth and true understanding. He has something f a oriental attitude towards the accelerated speed of contemporary life, which looks hopelessly superficial and carries with it the seeds of a premature self-consumption.

It just doesn't appeal to him, nor to his way to make art.

(1) The Chinese character yi ( ), made of thwo strokes only, is one of the simplest. It means "second" (numerically), therefor lacking the traditional eulogistic, well wishing or poetical meaning for names. Rong ( ) indeed means "honour, glory" or "florishing, thriving, prosperous". 

(2) Literally "to write the idea".

Monica Dematte
Guangzhou, March 1994