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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.

The textile-like surfaces of Ding Yi's paintings suggests a point of contact with some of the artists included in Chinese Printmaking Today at the Waterhall, though admittedly these are artists working in a representatonal idiom. Kong Fanjin's landscape The Slack Season of Winter, for instance, or Zhang Hongxun's astonishingly rich Golden Wind Sweeping the Earth, which resembles nothing so much as Elizabethan tapestry.

Coming to this exhibition with no prior knowledge of 20th century Chinese printmaking, it is exciting but at the same time somewhat disconcerting to see the stylistic range it encompasses.

The prints, lent by the Muban Foundation, Britain's largest collection devoted to modern Chinese prints, reflect the last two decades, years of momentous change in China. What you might expect to see is artists freeing themselves from the strictures of Communist orthodoxy - and in fact you can see something of the sort, though the picture is complicated by a variety of styles with no obvious political or aesthetic axe to grind.

There are traces of Soviet-style social realism in Xu Kuang's heroic Tibetan portrait or the attractive folksy art of Shi Yongjun. Then there are works not easy to relate to Western art, like the beautiful minimalist landscape of Yu Chengyou's The North - Slowly Waking from Deep Sleep with its patient repetitions of forms and stylised marks (another connection, perhaps, to Ding Yi's paintings Zhang Jiarul's beautiful sequence The Wonders of Daliah, recording various views of this harbour town from dawn to dusk, is pictorially undemanding but technically a tour de force.

In the work of Xu Bing, however, it is possible to see the influence of Western conceptual art. One series of prints begins with a black rectangle printed from a blank block, which is then progressively chipped away to illustrate a pattern of fields, ever lightening until the last is a white rectangle. A second work by Xu Bing, Book from the Sky, consists of a beautifully produced book of Chinese hieroglyphics, complete with a wooden box to hold it. This beautifully crafted object is undermined, however, by the fact that the hieroglyphics are meaningless.

Book from the Sky has sharply divided opinion in China, where it has been regarded both as an attack on traditional culture and as the most important work of art created in the country in the last 50 years. Its creator, however, has now moved to the United States.

Ding Yi: Appearance of Crosses is at Ikon Gallery, Brindleyplace, until Jan 22 (Tue-Sat 11am-6pm; admission free); Chinese Printmaking Today is at the Waterhall Gallery, Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery, until Jan 8 (Mon-Thu, Sat 10am-5pm, Fri 10.30am-5pm, Sun 12.30pm-5pm; admission free


The neon brashness of 21st century Shanghai is evoked in Ding Yi's huge Appearance of Crosses 2005-6 at Ikon Gallery; Mother (1999) by Xiang Silou
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Dec 6, 2005
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