Wang Gunagyi is considered one of the central figures of the Political Pop movement. By creating a link between propaganda aesthetics of the Cultural Revolution and striking imagery of American Pop, he holds a mirror up to China's present. With a critical attitude towards his home country, he pokes fun at China's globalization efforts and international exchange, viewing both as nothing but commercial greed.
Known for being the leader of the New Art Movement circles that erupted out of China after 1989, he created his so-called Great Criticism series in the late 1990s. In this series, Wang scrutinizes the dominance and icon-worship of Western brand products. By juxtaposing some of the world's most recognizable brand names and logos with famous scenes from propaganda posters of the Cultural Revolution, he creates an alliance between the authorities of power which show no sympathy toward China's past and present state. While the vigorous gestures of monumental proletarian images of the Mao era have already revealed themselves as a mendaciously colorful facade of an inhumane machinery, Wang attributes the same hypocrisy to Western consumerism.
While at first his works seem to be shallow and cliche-ridden depictions of East-West confrontations, on a deeper level they bear an important message and reflect the artist's complex socio-political exploration of the subject matter. Exemplary for his Great Criticism series are Channel V (Lot 854) (2005) and Haier (Lot 853) (2002/2003). In all three works, the heroes of the revolution, namely soldiers, workers and peasants seem to be manning the front lines of ideology. On a blood-red background and dressed in the traditional wardrobe of the Communist party, these heroic figures build a mass of dedicated and enthusiastic Mao supporters, waving his Little Red Book. With sharp black outlines and shadows, hardly distinguishable, the cartoon-like characters in these paintings are a dynamic mass composed of yellowish color fields, their facial features tentatively implied by black silhouettes. The red background corresponds with their red books, stars, collars and pins and creates a symbolism that evokes the idea of the omnipresence of Communism. Background and figures together, build a sharp contrast to the blunt commercialism of the brand logos. While the meaning of the logo or the brand itself is secondary, its role as an ambassador of an opposing system is what creates this visual and ideological contrast. This way, Wang simultaneously critiques the legacy of communism in China, while also producing a critique of the radical turn towards consumerism evident in the country in the last two decades. In a further attempt to critique the system, Wang spread randomly printed serial numbers all over canvas, indicating mass production, the lack of individualism and interchangeability of an individual.
Paralleling the Great Criticism series, Coca-Cola (Lot 855)exists as a return to what Wang refers to as "the original state of condition." Wang has stated, "Conceptually speaking, this process of returning to the original expression has meant for me a return to the original ideological worldview that guided my earliest educational experience, and, by extension, to the earliest views on the questions of form that were imparted to me. In fact, it could be said that all the work I am now doing is related to this idea of going back to the original, and of reducing things to their essentials. In the past, I never thought this way, but now I am following the trajectory of my own growth development. I realize that is very important for an artist" (Wang Guangyi quoted in Wang Guangyi: The Legacy of Heroism, Hanart TZ Gallery, Hong Kong, 2004, p. 5).
Wang's large-scale Coca-Cola triptych from 2004/2005 represents Wang's ongoing refinement of the dominant concerns of his career. On a blackboard-like background, the all too familiar, swinging font of the Coca Cola symbol, an icon of Western consumerism and shallow, gaudy and sugary advertisings, loses in the work of Wang its usual bold red and white color and turns into a mere grayish-white and ironically detached headline that stands in sharp contrast to the tension-laden, dramatic and violent scene that takes place below it. Borrowing the prototypes from propaganda posters of the Cultural Revolution, the emphasis is strictly on the dynamic forms of the revolutionary figures rather than the overtly displayed advertisements. The brand names of consumer goods and the bold, primary colors are replaced with a monochromatic palette and by hard-edged lines. Rendered in X-ray tones, the protagonists of this piece are either victim, onlooker or perpetrator of an execution that is about to be performed. The sense of tension and overwhelming violence is intensified by the long rifle that the young girl - in the center of the canvas - is pointing at the group of people who have gathered around the left side of the canvas and who seem completely unaware of what is about to happen. In contrast to his earlier in works, Coca-Cola exhibits more purely the artist's investigation of power itself, the visual seductiveness of classic revolutionary and consumerist imagery, implying that these heroic agents of history are in fact victims of their own actions.
With his art, Wang calls into question the symbols of both Capitalism and Communism, allowing us to see them as conflicting and competing, precisely because of their mutual insistence on hegemony. This way, the artist is indicating the uneasy points of confluence between China's Maoist past and its promising economic future.