Subtle Balance

By Villani, John | Southwest Art, November 2001 | Go to article overview

Subtle Balance


Villani, John, Southwest Art


Chinese-born artist Shang Ding fuses classical and modern elements in his realist paintings | By John Villani

ON OF THE REnowned Chinese calligrapher Shang Wen, Shang Ding was born in the Yunan Province city of Kunming. He has spent his life following an innate passion to draw and sketch images of rural China and its people. This path has led him from the ranks of the Red Army into the classrooms of two of China's most acclaimed institutions-the China Central Academy of Art and the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Art-and to a successful career as a realist painter living in the urban frontier of Los Angeles, CA.

Shang's images, which at first were focused on his military experiences and army friends, have evolved at a rapid pace since he moved to the United States in 1988. Today, he has established himself as a masterful interpreter of the human experience. His paintings, which almost always involve the figure, capture both a reverence for the sanctity of human life and a deep appreciation for the subtler aspects of nature's beauty. Shang is an artist who, in every sense of the word, "feels" his transition through life's experiences and then focuses his considerable talents on communicating the simple values of truth, beauty, and gentleness.

Some of Shang's most acclaimed paintings use ballet dancers as subjects. But unlike New York painter Milt Kobayashi, who also is inspired by the fluid forms and expressive features of these dancers, Shang captures them inside their studios and on stage during performances. Whatever moment he elects to put on canvas, though, the one constant he brings to these works is an unerring ability to softly and sensually frame the dancers' physically rigorous world.

But Shang's paintings of his native land and its people constitute his most memorable work. In addition to his skill at portraying the figure, he is also a talented landscape painter, and he uses this skill to provide compelling backdrops for the human subjects that are the central focus of his work. In fact, only in recent years has Shang allowed himself the luxury of creating paintings with the landscape as their sole subject.

When working with Chinese subject matter, Shang strives to capture a balance of modern and traditional values within his work. In terms of painting technique, this means his classical training at Zhejiang Academy, where he received his master's degree in 1981, is adjusted for contemporary sensibilities through the use of looser brush strokes as well as a palette of decidedly naturalistic tones.

Similarly, in his efforts to depict the human figure, Shang pursues this balance between visual cues evoking traditional China and its rich history, on one hand, and references to today's rapidly changing, industrialized, technologically savvy society. This pursuit of thematic balance is expressed in such compositions as a painting of a Chinese woman seated at a table in a bare room. On that table are an empty rice bowl and a bright can of American cola.

Shang's desire for balance in his paintings is sometimes expressed even more subtly, as through the focus on a woman's hairstyle or through the color pattern woven into a piece of fabric in SPRING GARDEN. But whatever visual cues Shang incorporates into his paintings, the outcome consistently reinforces his intrinsic love of his homeland and its people.

"I consider myself to have been strongly influenced by my Chinese cultural background," says Shang, "and I was taught from an early age that you can tell the character of a person by the quality of their work. China is still a difficult place for many people to understand, and even today I have some reservations about freely expressing all of my thoughts about China in a direct way. …

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