Ding Yi — Grids



Ding Yi

Past: January 19 → March 2, 2019

The Galerie Karsten Greve is delighted to present Grids, an exhibition featuring the work of Ding Yi. For more than ten years now, the gallery has been representing this Chinese painter who has earned international renown with a body of work based on abstract paintings that are created using variants of the sign ‘+’. This particular exhibition features a selection of about ten oil-on-canvas pieces from the series Appearance of Crosses; and a series of works on paper made especially for this exhibition.

Starting in the mid-1980s, Ding Yi drifts away from his study of traditional painting and turns his attention to abstraction. In 1988, he completes his first painting comprised of an assembly of the ‘+’ signs that would subsequently become emblematic of his work. His work is then shown in a ground-breaking 1989 exhibition, China Avant-garde, at the National Art Museum in Beijing. Since then, the artist has developed a very personal style by limiting the shapes he chooses to use to a single sign, ‘+’ and its variant: ‘x’. His abstract paintings soon attracted interest in China and worldwide: his work is shown for the first time in Europe during the 45th Venice Biennale in 1993, and his first solo museum exhibition takes place in 1994 at the Shanghai Art Museum.

In Ding Yi’s painting the sign ‘+’ is stripped of all semantic references, having been selected for its simplicity and universality. Any narrative is banished to leave room for an exploratory study, whose singular subject is the essence of painting itself: in other words it is the relationship between shape and colour and their interaction with space. Ding Yi works therefore on the effects of layering and juxtaposing the symbol ‘+’ in various colours, most often on a monochrome background. He is interested in the effect that pattern clustering has on the surface according to specific shades, proportions or the properties of the materials. In his earliest pieces, Ding Yi seeks to eliminate any trace of the painter’s subjectivity and reduce any visible trace of his gesture to a very bare minimum. By using a ruler and cello-tape he erases any perceptible residue of his own physical involvement in the piece. Starting in 1991, the artist further liberated his creative process by abandoning all tools and painting free-hand. Shortly thereafter, he opened this process up to include unusual materials such as tartan, corrugated cardboard or, more recently, painting on wood done using a wedging technique. Ding Yi constructs an arrangement of perfectly aligned modules done according to an accumulative clustering premise that calls upon the onlooker’s active participation. The visual effect depends on the distance the onlooker is from the piece: from farther away, one can see ever-changing colour schemes outlining trajectories, or grids. Whereas closer up, the observer may discover a surface overflowing with elements, an impenetrable web wherein close-fitting consecutive marks hinder any perception of depth.

Ding Yi was born in Shanghai in 1962, his childhood was spent under the influence of Mao’s cultural revolution; he started studying painting just as China was opening its doors to the global marketplace. From 1979 onward, this comparative openness to the outside world — encouraged by Deng Xiaoping’s government — gave Chinese artists permission to discover 20th century European and American art. Ding Yi was undoubtedly one of the artists who successfully grasped the teachings of artists like Cézanne and the Modernism movement. This led him to break away from Realism as well as traditional Chinese painting, to create a very personal sort of abstraction that identifies itself as fully Chinese. By adopting an essential vocabulary — reduced to patterns of ‘+’ — the artist goes beyond the minimalism that Western art had undertaken. By layering and juxtaposing a single element infinitely, altering only colour and angle, he fills the entire surface area of the piece with criss-crossed symbols that function together. By combining these two characteristics — the extremely limited formal language and the accumulation in an all over — curator and art critic Hou Hanru would be inspired to speak of “Excessive Minimalism” with regards to Ding Yi’s unique type of abstraction. Despite an apparent disconnect with reality and a deliberate rejection of narrative, Ding Yi’s pieces carry specific characteristics of contemporary Chinese society within; and more exactly, they echo traces of developing megacities like Shanghai where the artist lives to this day. In the pieces on a black background symbols are duly spread out and gathered together, as though re-constituting the map of a city lit up at night by countless neon lights. Tightly formed groups of tiny lines make us think of insect-like people busily walking through any one of the shopping centres dotted throughout China’s capitalist cities filled with the noise and chaos that prevail in these saturated megacities. Nevertheless the artist’s creative process is slow and repetitive, the reiteration of the symbols puts together something like a visual mantra that carries us away from the confusion in the world to get back to concentration and calm.


Ding Yi was born in Shanghai (China) in 1962. He graduated in 1983 from the Shanghai Arts & Crafts Institute and then in 1990 from the University of Shanghai’s Fine Arts department. Ding Yi’s body of work includes painting, but also installations and architectural pieces. He has been a professor at the Shanghai Institute of Visual Art since 2005. His work has been shown at important international events such as the Venice Biennale (1993); the Yokohama Triennial of Contemporary Art in (2001); the Shanghai Biennale (2006); the Shenzhen Sculpture Biennale (2012); and the Busan Biennale (2016). The institutions that have shown his work include: the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York and Bilbao; the Centre Pompidou in Paris; the MaXXI in Rome; the MAMbo in Bologna and the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin. Recently his work was part of some important retrospective exhibitions in China that were held at: the Long Museum in Shanghai (2015); the Xi’an Art Museum in Xi’an (2016); and the Guangdong Museum of Art in Guangzhou (2018). Ding Yi lives and works in Shanghai.

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The artist

  • Ding Yi