Wang Guangyi's immediately recognizable Great Criticism (Lot 1578, Lot 1587 & Lot 1648) paintings have become iconic of the transformation shaping China's social, cultural, and political life in the last several decades. The circumstances of Wang's art are contemporary China - a landscape where two ideologically antithetical systems have collided head-on: consumer capitalism and Chinese communism. But the short-hand focus on political themes under the heading of "Political Pop" obscures the ways in which Wang's deconstructive concerns are also, and have always been, fundamentally aesthetic.
China in the 1980s experienced its "New Wave" art movement. Artists groups around the nation emerged, each espousing its own artistic philosophy, encouraged by China's new liberalization policies that a cultural transformation was underway and that they would be agents of its renewal and rebirth. As the leader of the Northern Artists Group, Wang advocated an interrogation into essential and universal compositional forms, believing that such an approach could provide a de-politicized visual vocabulary to move contemporary culture forward. His approach maintained certain unmistakable parallels with the Socialist Realist ethos, but Wang sought to circumvent its heavy-handed ideology-laden practices to reveal and honor the unadulterated resilience of the Chinese people. North Pole Amalgamation No. 2 (Lot 1576) from 1985 is typical of this period. The two figures' shapes and the sheep on the horizon are deliberately reductive, but their rugged appearance implies that they no longer the chiseled muscular peasants symbols of political propaganda, but that they are uncomplicatedly of the earth. The strong solid blue of sky and gentle slope of the snowscape further suggests not the heroics of the 'revolution', but the more humble heroics of everyday life.
As China began to feel the effects of global, consumerist capitalism, and Wang himself was busy with international exhibitions, seeds of discontent became more and more apparent in his works. This is especially the case in the rare, brief series of "Visa Dog" paintings he created in 1995. Wang found an outlet for these experiences in a brief series of canvases, famously exhibited in the historic "China!" exhibition in Bonn, Germany in 1996. Against a monochromatic background of Wang's signature communist red, the artist replaces the typical passport mug-shot with various dog breeds, a violent, institutional "VISA" stamped across the center of the canvas (Lot 1577). The typical categories of identity appear across the composition in cursive - place of birth, name, sex - along with arrows signifying misdirection and confusion. Some have seen this as a critique of the restrictions China imposed on its own citizens' mobility, but in fact it stems much more from the artist's experience with the bureaucracies of foreign governments and the paucity of respect he received as a Chinese national. Replacing a figure's visage with that of a standard pug, Wang suggests not only a generally derisive status but conjures the notorious urban legend of the restrictions imposed on the Chinese people under British colonial occupation in the form of public park signs announcing "Dogs and Chinese not allowed".
Great Criticism: Starbucks (Lot 1648) elegantly embodies the conceptual rigor and aesthetic economy of Wang's practice. A trio of figures march towards the viewer for an unnamed cause, similar to images of the zealous campaigns that so often moved not only the Chinese masses but numerous revolutionary movements around the world throughout the 20th Century. Their "revolution" however is bluntly undermined by the relentlessly ubiquitous presence of "Starbucks", rendering their ambitions futile against an encroaching capitalism.
Wang's concerns are not limited to a basic capitalism versus socialism opposition, but also implicates the larger field on which China has emerged as a global leader and, indeed, to become the home of numerous highly sought-after contemporary artists. As a result, Wang has produced a number of self-reflexive art world-related works. Like Art and Power (Lot 1027) in the Evening Sale, his 2003 Christie's (Lot 1578) also stems from this interest. Alongside other works like Museums or Beuys, Wang cleverly acknowledges the institutional field through which Chinese contemporary art has become known to the world, the structures through with it circulates, is promoted, and assessed.
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)