From afar, Ding Yi’s paintings resemble woven fabric, a QR code, or the microscopic surface of a circuit board. Colors are stippled across the surface in a pattern that suggest both military camouflage and the organic growth of lichen. Yet as one approaches the work, patches of color dissolve into a galaxy of tiny starbursts, where meticulously painted lines intersect and crisscross with one another to produce a moving tapestry of minuscule crosses that bewilders the eye. A piece that seems predominantly maroon reveals itself to contain a panoply of subtly hued lines, interweaving with regularity and unpredictability, rhythm and chaos.
Ding Yi’s entire oeuvre is dominated by a binary vocabulary that he has employed since the mid-1980s. His vocabulary consists of ‘x’ and ‘+’, hand painted with immaculate precision within a simple grid structure, the spectrum of lines intersecting and overlapping in unpredictable ways. The overall effect is one of bewildering detail, resolving at a distance into layers of color and line that shift as the eye wanders across the surface of the canvas. Whether you stand with your nose almost touching the canvas, or on the other side of the room, the piece enthralls the eye just as a fractal does, toying with the tensions of distance and perspective.
Born in Shanghai in 1962, Ding Yi began his career working at a humble printing factory in the city, before enrolling at the Shanghai Arts and Crafts Institute, where he graduated in 1983. Ding then studied within the Fine Arts Department of Shanghai University where he internalized an early acceptance of abstract form, triggering his divergence from artistic conventions of the time.
During the late 80s, most Chinese artists were working within the figurative realm, drawing inspiration from traditional literati painting techniques as well as recent innovations in the Western oeuvre to create works that engaged with themes of social and cultural criticism. Ding, on the other hand, found these dominant trends stifling: “[I] found it necessary to distance myself both from the burden of traditional Chinese culture and from the influence of early Western modernism, in order to go back to the starting point of art, in order to literally start from zero.”
In his quest to wipe the slate clean, Ding has acknowledged the influence of Piet Mondrian and the De Stijl movement who sought a similar purity of form in their own work. It was Ding’s desire to transcend representational painting that led him to develop his unique visual vocabulary of crosses – one that he has continued to expand and innovate upon over the past three decades. Unlike his peers, Ding’s practice defies easy categorization, and he actively rejects any imparted meaning ascribed to his work by others. Each work is simply entitled ‘Appearance of Crosses’ and marked with a year and serial number.
“Growing up in such a highly political environment . . . you get tired of it, and consequently, you feel like you would rather not express that environment. Instead, you want to get as far away from it as possible,” Ding states, when asked about how his work relates to his childhood during the Cultural Revolution. “I think this is why I want my art to be devoid of content—because the earliest symbols in my paintings were meant to be devoid of content, as opposed to directly related to daily life.”
At first glance, Ding Yi’s work appears evocative of a monumental Sol LeWitt piece that is composed of a few discrete, repetitive elements, or Francois Morellet’s Random Distribution of 40,000 Squares Using the Odd and Even Numbers of a Telephone Directory, Yet LeWitt and Morellet were interested in automation and the relinquishing of artistic control, while each of Ding Yi’s pieces represent profound planning and meditation on the part of the artist. Each painting is the product of painstaking labor, as each iteration of the ‘x’ is painted by hand in endless layers, colors and rotations, requiring intense precision and technical skill. In this sense, his works are more akin to the delicate early works of Agnes Martin, who sought transcendence through systematic repetition.
“It's not my intention to do something that's deliberately difficult” Ding says. “The major challenge for me is to explore a new language with which to express myself, not to simplify the technique." Over the past thirty years, Ding has experimented with paper, canvas, checkered and tartan fabrics, and corrugated cardboard, as well as paint, pencil, chalk, marker pens, spray paint, and fluorescent pigments. Through all of this, the visual vocabulary of Ding Yi’s work has remained the same even as the materials and media that he incorporates into his work continue to evolve.
Despite Ding’s silence on the meaning behind his infinite repetition of crosses and x’s, the endless complexity of these simple marks compel the viewer towards profound introspection and contemplation, encouraging each to seek out their own personal interpretation of Ding Yi’s work.