Ding Yi Appearance of Crosses, 2011-12, acrylic on tartan
In 1988, Ding Yi started a process that he has been fully committed to ever since: all of his paintings are variations on the same combination of two motifs: ‘+’ and ‘ x’. Day after day, Ding covers paper, canvas, fabric and cardboard with an endless number of these two symbols, often forming intricate patterns slightly reminiscent of woven or patchwork structures, or even of ‘pixels’ forming superstructures that in turn allow other forms – rectangles, lines, triangles – to appear. Despite quite substantial transformations and differences in colour, paint, surface material and brushstrokes, the choice of subject matter remains the same. Yet it would be a mistake to reduce Ding’s continuous multiplication of these two simple signs to a prolific production of decorative paintings. True, his work is appealing, but his presentation of 61 paintings spanning more than two decades of practice at the Minsheng Art Museum was a testimony to persistence and determination amidst years of drastic change, rather than evidence of mere chic. The oldest work in the retrospective, Taboo (1986), revealed a hint of what would later become a decades-long obsession. It was an expressive depiction of one large and one small ‘x’, made with bold brushstrokes reminiscent of Paul Cézanne’s. Prior to Ding’s devotion to painting crosses, at the beginning of the early 1980s, he had been fascinated with painting the cityscape of Shanghai, where he was born and still lives. In those pictures, he developed a special interest in depicting architecture as abstract, structural elements. When he eventually decided to paint only crosses, he was drawn to the structural and systematic perception that such a motif promises. Ding himself has described his years at Shanghai Arts and Crafts Institute, from which he graduated in 1983, and his study with artist Yu Youhan, as instrumental to his development. During this period he was exposed to early Modernist movements and basic techniques of Western painting, through reading publications and catalogues borrowed from Yu, who has pursued abstraction as the embodiment of Asian philosophy. Ding was also impressed by the works of Chinese masters such as Wu Dayua and Guan Liang, who were among the first generation of Chinese oil painters educated abroad in the 1920s, in Paris and Japan respectively. In the 1980s, much of the discussion in the Chinese art world revolved around artistic practice as a form of rebellion against ideological repression. Most of the recognizable work at that time was, in Ding’s eyes, too rough in technique and quality. He attributed one of his earliest artistic epiphanies to his introduction to the work of Cézanne, without which he would not have pursued abstraction. In the midst of the revolutionary zeal of the art world in the 1980s, Ding adopted repetition as a direct expression of freedom from any social or ideological expectations for artistic practice and the turmoil of society. For him, the sign of the cross is relevant to the way we perceive the organization of the universe, while remaining free of specific references to immediate reality. His first painting of crosses (Appearance of Crosses No.1, 1988), made in red, yellow and green, signalled his determination to return to the fundamental and basic level of artistic practice itself. An important transition occurred around the year 1993, when Ding started to suffer from unbearable back pain caused by meticulously painting with a ruler to regulate the shape of each stroke on his canvas. At that point, he decided to make his brushstrokes freehand instead. It was a liberation that would drive him to experiment with new materials, colours and even patterned fabrics. For Ding, the changes within this singular choice of motif are endless and are still, in a sense, at an early stage.