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", uniquely combining the ideological power of Communist propaganda from the Cultural Revolution (Fig. 1 & 2) with the seductive allure of Western advertising, resulting in a style reminiscent of American Pop. With his dramatically outlined figures, set against flat planes of colour, he references a style that is specific to Chinese government posters of the late 1960s and 1970s, while Wang's images, emblazoned with the logos of international consumer brands, or such disputed categories such as "Art" and "Power", find new meaning within the realm of his paintings.
The appellation of "Political Pop" carries with it the same conceptual pitfalls as its Western corollary: coy, commercial, and steeped in consumer culture, while at the same time smuggling in a sophisticated political critique - not one targeting any person or regime but instead laying bare the ironies and hypocrisies that enabled the circumstances not only of its making, but of its triumphant, bald-faced commercial success. The circumstances of Wang's art in particular is contemporary China - a cultural landscape where two ideologically antithetical systems have collided head-on: consumerist capitalism and Chinese communism. From the beginning, Wang's art practice has been driven by his de-constructive navigation of these oppositional regimes.
Looking back at his artistic development, Wang stated: "Conceptually speaking, this process of returning to the original expression has meant to for me a return to the original ideological worldview that guided my earliest education's 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 T Z Gallery, Hong Kong, 2004, p. 5)
T.S. Eliot has stated that artists " shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time ", a philosophy of art-making that greatly informs Wang's obsessive return and re-working of his original themes. His stated "return to the original expression" suggests Wang's re-evaluation and self-reflexive mining of his original dialectical Marxist training. As such, his painting's focus is not only on the superficial effects of clashing cultures but of the power structures that underpin material social life. This concern is not limited to a basic capitalism versus socialism opposition, consumerism-versus-leftist radicalism, but also implicates the larger field on which China has emerged as a global leader and, indeed, home to numerous highly sought-after contemporary artists.
In a spectacular triptych from 2005-6 (Lot 1027), Wang presents a mass of heroic and chiseled figures - workers, peasants, and soldiers - surging exuberantly forward, their eyes fixed on a utopian horizon. Their figuration is drawn from mass-produced propaganda campaigns and public sculptures honoring the ideals of the nation. Whatever one's circumstances or social position, their relationship to a heroic collective was ceaselessly reinforced, an ethos of heroic self-sacrifice that to a certain extent remains a value upheld today.
Wang's training in China no doubt suggested the political power of images, their ability to naturalize ideological positions and interpellate the viewer, consciously or not, willingly or not, into their systems. Like other consumerism-minded, structuralist artists Barbara Kruger (Fig. 3) or John Baldessari, Wang combines seemingly disparate images, forms, and language to raise broad philosophical questions. Here the background of the canvas is divided into three bands of colour: blue, yellow, and red. Two bold arrows drive the group forward, but also insinuate that their radicalism is driven by forces out of their control, that they might easily be swayed whatever political wind may be blowing. They carry books, banners, and manifestoes, all of which are blank, further implying the arbitrary nature of their campaign. The yellow and red bands of colour are also covered with randomly generated numbers, suggesting a backdrop of institutional and bureaucratic limitations that are beyond the purview of these youthful revolutionaries.
Wang has given the painting the title "Art and Power", and these words appear in boldface across the tops of the canvas. It is however not exactly the banner under which these figures march but rather describe the circumstances of their empowerment. Wang's Great Criticism Series has often seemed haunted by the artist's lament over the loss of idealism in Chinese social life, the ease with which one ideology replaced another in post-Mao China. This painting however presents an altogether different view of China's current reality. It has long been acknowledged that the notion of American high art emerged only after World War II when, with the triumph of the war and growth of the American economy, the United States fully emerged on the world stage as the locus of not only of political and economic power, but also of high culture. China too now finds itself in a similar position, having established itself as a major world political and economic power, it has also become a place of art, home to one of the most dynamic and exciting contemporary art scenes in the world.
After more than two decades as an international artist, Wang is fully aware of the signs, symbols, and cliches that register as "Chinese" in an international context, and his band of revolutionaries invoke that expectation, while the appellation "Art and Power" suggests the new terms on which China will perform on the world stage, the terms on which its masses are now mobilized and empowered. While there is no small irony in China's apparently easy exchange of one ideology for another, Wang, with his increasingly bold colours and exuberant figuration, nonetheless exhibits a certain satisfaction with this extraordinary and historic turn of events.