CULTURE : Revolution Revelation; Terry Grimley Reviews Exhibitions of Contemporary Art from China at Ikon Gallery and the Waterhall
Byline: Terry Grimley
While many of us may have a broad idea of the historic contribution of China to visual art, the story of Chinese art since the Cultural Revolution is a book which is only just being opened.
As part of the intensive current programme of Chinese cultural events taking place around the country Birmingham is currently offered two glimpses of contemporary Chinese art, with the first UK exhibition of the painter Ding Yi at Ikon Gallery and an overview of contemporary printmaking at The Waterhall.
Ding Yi, a native of Shanghai, was trained in the political realist style officially approved in Communist China, and discovered Western modernism from Cezanne onwards only when ideological constraints began to relax in the 1980s.
Since the early 1990s he has been producing abstract paintings in which simple cross motifs, either + or x, are used to build up rich "all-over" patterns. The Ikon show brings together examples of these paintings, all titled Appearances of Crosses and distinguished by dates and numbers, from 1991 to the present. It is immediately appealing work, at once subtle and vibrant, and tantalisingly poised between traditions of art and craft, Western abstraction and Eastern contemplation.
One of the earliest paintings, Appearance of Crosses 1991-3 (1991) comes closest to the practice of Anglo-American hard-edged abstraction with its intersecting horizontal and vertical grids painted with the aid of masking tape. In this context the x motifs are created at one remove, but Ding Yi later moved towards painting them by hand, like a signature, across the canvas.
Having started with conventional blank canvas he experimented with a variety of materials including, in the striking Appearance of Crosses 1997 B21B24, four large panels of corrugated cardboard.
Oddly enough, the ideal support he eventually hit upon was tartan fabric, the Scottish identity of which becomes completely submerged beneath the endlessly repeated cross motifs, though it continues to contribute to the overall richness of colour and texture.
As with all these paintings, your experience of them changesradically with distance. The exhibition is presented back to front, with the latest and largest paintings the first to greet the visitor. The one the artist identifies as most special to this show is the vast Appearance of Crosses 2005-6, made up of six large panels arranged asymmetrically, painted in luminous colours with a predominance of red and orange.
At first sight disconcertingly vulgar, it is also remarkably successful in conveying its inspiration - the transformation of Shanghai into a neon-lit economic boom-town. It also calls to mind something familiar from various Western artists - the visual parallel between the pixilated format of digital imagery and the repetitive handicraft of traditional embroidery.
On the opposite wall is something only relatively less epic but probably more seductive. Appearance of Crosses 2001-6 consists of three large panels in which the predominant green-yellow colouring gives a strong feeling of high summer to its rich, vegetation-like textures. …