Damien H. Ding’s Dreams of a Modernist Past

BOSTON — I did not know of Damien H. Ding’s art until I saw his debut exhibition, Simple Structures, at Steven Zevitas Gallery. The show consists of five egg tempera paintings on aluminum surfaces and two large sculptures made of repurposed wooden beams, both with small paintings on wood inserted into carefully made notches. (The sculptures were built in collaboration with Juan-Manuel Pinzon.) Ding’s understated gesture of inserting his painting into a rigid architectural form is a key to understanding his approach to art-making. Although the critic Harold Bloom might have called him a “belated” modernist, Ding rejects Bloom’s thesis that artists must engage in an Oedipal battle with their forebears. Rather, he finds ways to establish a dialogue with a historical figure — the world-renowned modernist architect I. M. Pei — that reveals something about the subject, himself, and his wide-ranging internal dialogue about art. 

In one painting, Ding depicts Pei dreaming; in another, the architect holds an inverted glass pyramid that resembles the one he designed for the Louvre Museum. Pei believed that cubism’s exploration of space was the basis of modern architecture. Working in the International Style, which favored rectilinear forms and planes devoid of ornamentation, as well as spacious interiors and glass and steel construction, Pei’s best-known accomplishments include the triangular design of the East Building of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC (opened in 1978) and the glass pyramid in one of the Louvre’s courtyards (1989), for which he received mixed responses. 

Ding’s take on Pei is complex and conflicted. He admires Pei, but is aware that the architect, who died in 2019 at the age of 102, lived in a different time and world. Ding knows that today he can do just about anything and call it art, and by working in figurative painting and sculpture, he has committed himself to practices many consider obsolete. To make matters more complicated, he uses the pre-Renaissance medium of egg tempera and rejects the postmodern strategies of replication, appropriation, pastiche, and citation. 

By applying luminous egg tempera, a historical medium, to aluminum, a widely used modern domestic and industrial material, Ding expresses his awareness that time is not linear, and also that artists need not conform to art world fashions. Born in Nanping, China, and living and working in the United States, Ding’s choice is both aesthetic and political. 

In “IM Pei, Dreaming” (2023), the formally attired architect is asleep in a modernist chair, his white shirt open. Pei’s bare chest suggests vulnerability, while his open suit jacket and sharply creased pants ensconce him in geometric shapes, reiterated by the diamonds bisected into triangles throughout the piece. A muted blue vertical band along the left side of the picture plane contrasts with the warm hues that fill the rest of the work and constrict the space Pei occupies. Everything in this painting is open to interpretation.

Ding’s ability to synthesize conceptual ambiguity with visual precision is one of his strengths. In addition to holding the viewer’s attention, particularly as one begins to see the interplay between figure and ground, “IM Pei, Dreaming” raises many questions. How might we read the tonal relationship between the figure’s yellowish face and the different yellows of the wall? Is the artist’s use of pale jade green significant? What are we to make of the black square (which I read as a fireplace) beneath the chair on which Pei slumps? Why does Ding depict his subject asleep?

In “IM Pei” (2023), set in a gilded frame that is integral to the painting’s composition, Pei holds an inverted glass pyramid (a model of the one at the Louvre), its bottom edge pressed against the painting’s top edge. The sides of the triangle continue into the top corners of the frame, transforming the flat plane into a three-dimensional object. Pei’s angled body, composed of geometric planes, follows the lines of the pyramid. While the painting could allude to the pyramid’s negative reception in France, I think it goes beyond that.  

Shapes mirror other shapes throughout the composition. The flatness of the geometric planes coexists with the transparency of the pyramid and the suggestion of volume in Pei’s head and hands. This resistance to make it all fit together within an established language or style seems central to Ding’s pursuit. How many vocabularies can he use without falling into well-worn strategies? 

These are paintings that reveal themselves slowly; they reward introspection. In “Drawing an A” (2023), a figure sits at a drafting table, his head and arm resting on it and faced away from us. The A shape he seems to be drawing echoes the sculpture “Attempt” (2023), made of heavy oak beams; a small painting of a nude Asian male on a piece of wood has been inserted into an opening in the crossbeam. 

The drawing’s A also echoes the structure seen through the window (or is it a mirror?). Behind the seated figure and drafting table is a long shadow that appears to be cast by a chair leg. What’s making the other shadows is unclear and this shadow is too long to be realistic but it is necessary to the composition’s structure. 

“Triangular Portrait” (2023) is one of the most interesting portrait paintings I have seen in a long time. Are we looking at a face or a mask — or perhaps both? The title offers no clue. Everything seems heightened, in part due to the yellow and yellow-green tones that define the figure’s cheeks. The face, eyes downcast, conveys deep concentration as the person holds an instrument with a point. Are the interlocking geometric shapes that compose the head a comment on Cubism or on the “inscrutability” that White people sometimes read into Asian people? All too often, especially in Asian-American literature, what mainstream society wants is transparency in the form of autobiography or memoir. Ding courts narrative but doesn’t tell a story. His refusal to kowtow to the expectations of the art world, and of general US society, serves him well. 

Damien H. Ding: Simple Structures continues at Steven Zevitas Gallery (450 Harrison Avenue #47, Boston, Massachusetts) through March 16. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.

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