As one of the leading protagonists of Chinese contemporary art, Wang Guangyi rapidly established himself both in China and internationally not only as an artist, but as a critic and public intellectual, advocating a radical and progressive re-evaluation of Chinese contemporary art and culture. His paintings belong to the category of Chinese contemporary art termed Political Pop and uniquely combine the ideological power of the Communist propaganda of the Cultural Revolution with the seductive allure of Western advertising, resulting in the flat style of American Pop. With his dramatically outlined figures that are set against flat planes of color he references a style that is specific to Chinese government posters of the late 1960s and early 1970s, while Wang's images, emblazoned with the logos of international consumer brands, or such disputed categories such as "Art" and "Materialism", find a new meaning within the realm of his paintings.
The anesthetization of the experiences of the Cultural Revolution is only one aspect of Wang's art. On a much deeper level, he raises important ideological and historical questions that touch upon a variety of issues; the dominance of the Maoist regime over visual culture and artistic production in China from 1949 to 1976 approached nearly complete monopolization of Chinese visual culture between 1966 and 1972, during the Gang of Four's reign. The vast legacy of propaganda that resulted from this period is the subject matter of many artists interested in critically examining China's recent visual history. After all, these images were more than simply popular; for a time, they were the only ones allowed.
With his critical approach toward China's complex political history, he weaves intricate narratives, implicating the role of the artist as an active participant in economic and social policy. With contradictory and oppositional visual and ideological systems, Wang draws a very delicate line between moral dictum and capitalist endorsement.
During the mid-1990s, as China's rapidly changing economic system transformed to accommodate the demands of the global marketplace, a rush of luxury goods became available to the newly wealthy. It was during this time that Wang created his Great Criticism series, in which he responds to the influx of a new visual regime: advertising images promoting newly available, high-priced commodities. In the resulting oil paintings, Wang stages conflicts between classical figures of propaganda and the onslaught of luxury consumer goods entering China.
The two Evening sale paintings featured here show Wang working at the height of his powers, refining his themes into pointed critiques of his aesthetic and social milieu. In the monumental Great Criticism: Disney (Lot 514), the canvas is dominated by the formidable pyramid shaped composition of four military figures, bearing weapons, appearing to engage an unseen adversary. They appear cautiously triumphant. The central figure raises an unidentified book, as if signaling to their opponent if not a truce, at least the superiority of whatever ideals they represent. Considering the monolithic communist visual culture Wang was raised in, his "Walt Disney's" represents an ironic post-mortem on the failed cultural protectionism of the communist era. Wang identifies not only "Walt Disney" the brand as a wildly popular multi-media entertainment corporation, but "Walt Disney's Art". The addition of the non-sequitor "ART" in the lower right canvas would seem to imply that, for Wang, the difference between the period of his upbringing and the contemporary moment is not merely that of the opening up of consumer choices, but a profound shift in ideology, worldview and political consciousness. For Wang, the extremism of the Cultural Revolution period nonetheless contained at its core a level of idealism and heroicism that is laudable. As with "Walt Disney's Art" however, the basis of that idealism is revealed to be untenable and hollow, but perhaps not any less so than the consumerism that has replaced it.
In Great Criticism - Bentley (Lot 515) three heroes of the revolution, namely an industrial laborer, a soldier in the People's Liberation Army, and a peasant seem to be standing in the front lines of ideology. Painted in lockstep across the breadth of the composition, their idealized, muscular and chiseled features offer a romantic view of collective action. The dynamism of their figures, coordinating independently but as a coherent troupe, is lyrical in its rhythms, implying a larger collective participating with them and seducing the viewer into joining them as well. The idea that this group of "red" people - the proletariat -would pave the way for the future is deeply rooted in China's collective memory as well as cultural and historical experience and evokes an immediate and strong response from in the viewer.
On a sky-blue background, juxtaposed against these bright yellow, revolutionary types is the blunt commercialism of the white "Bentley" logo, providing a crass philosophical opposition to the idealism indicated by the figures. The chosen logo in and of itself has little meaning; the point for Wang is to highlight the arbitrariness of ideological systems and slogans, that masses of people can be all too easily organized under any given banner. The contrast between these two visual and ideological systems allows the artist to explore the opposing ideologies of Socialism and Capitalism, exposing the ways in which these supposedly antithetical systems are nonetheless visually complementary. In 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. The jarring, cropped, red-highlighted 'NO' at the lower right edge of the canvas corresponds with the Little Red Book held by the soldiers in both paintings, signaling a rejection of bourgeois materialism - but not a very convincing one. It represents Wang's own ironic critique on the failure of the communist project, and the evacuation of political idealism in contemporary life.
Looking back at his artistic development, Wang 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)