As one of the leading protagonists of Chinese contemporary art, Wang Guangyi rapidly established himself both within 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. Caught up in the swell of China's "Culture Fever" in the 1980s and the popular discourse debating the state and future of national culture, Wang Guangyi nonetheless always maintained a coolly analytical and deconstructive approach to art and aesthetics. His earliest works aimed to produce an objective analysis of the underlying principals of art and beauty. For Wang, notions of beauty are built on calculated manipulations of form, color, composition, and perspective, and the highest aim of art would be to reveal the apparatus of this illusion.
This impulse reached its full maturity with the artist's breakthrough "Great Criticism" series, paintings fusing the imagery of mass produced Chinese propaganda with well-known Western commercial logos. Well-acquainted with the vocabularies of international contemporary art practice, Wang's appropriationist Political Pop certainly has corollaries in Western Pop Art. Even so, the ferocity of Wang's works, and their deep roots in Chinese cultural and historical experience, by far exceed the Western art influence. In one of the earliest paintings from the series, "Great Criticism: CASH" from 1995, Wang employs the classic figures of revolutionary imagery, building a mass of heroic figures in lockstep across the breadth of the composition. Their idealized, muscular and chiseled features offer a romantic view of collective action. Their coordinated dynamism, even in this small grouping, implies a larger collective participating with them and seducing the viewer into joining them as well.
Juxtaposed against these revolutionary types is the blunt commercialism of the "CASH" logo, combined with the sticker price of 3.60, referencing a popular business magazine in Asia, providing a crass philosophical opposition to the idealism indicated by the figures. The chosen typically for Wang is somewhat arbitrary, but here the choice has particular ramifications in his contemporary social landscape, targeting what, for Wang, amounted to the ideological about-face in his country's embrace of consumerism. 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. Wang's appropriation of these two visual styles represents his own ironic critique on the failure of the communist project, as well as his disappointment with the lack of idealism in the present day. As such, much like Carl Andre's famous comment on the work of Andy Warhol, Wang is working fully in the spirit of his times, providing us with precisely with the art we deserve.