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.
Wang Guangyi is best known for his Political Pop paintings and Great Criticism series - furious appropriations of Cultural Revolution propaganda juxtaposed with Western consumer brands, highlighting the ironic failure of political ideology and idealism in the face of capitalist culture. But prior to this series, Wang had already made his name throughout China with his coolly analytical paintings investigating the politics of painting form itself. These early works included revisions of iconic Western works, reduced to their elemental forms in a restrained black and white palette, such as his painting following Jacques Louis David's famous Death of Marat (Fig. 1). David's canvas was an ideologically and emotionally expressive work, but here Wang reduces that emotionalism to Courbet's solemn manipulation of form.
Reflecting on his own development as an artist, Wang has sated, "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 or reducing things to their essentials. In the past, I never thought this sway, 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 training and education in China no doubt would have 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 structuralist-minded artists Barbara Kruger of John Baldessari, Wang combines seemingly disparate images and forms to raise broad philosophical questions. At the heart of Wang's practice then is his understanding of the manipulative power of images experienced under the Cultural Revolution. This formative experience is addressed directly as the artist, finally, takes on the most iconic and ubiquitous image of the Chinese 20th Century in the form of Mao Zedong.
Mao's portrait would have been unavoidable during Wang's youth and upbringing. It has been suggested that over 2 billion images of the Chairman were in circulation by the end of the 1970s - in posters, paintings, pins, and other forms, images ranging from that of a young pre-Liberation Mao, mature and in profile, Mao in daily newsprint, in history paintings and in mass produced propaganda posters.
Here Wang has selected the official image that would have been produced by painting workshops to be hung in bureaucratic offices or over Tian'anmen Gate itself. The artist has again eliminated all natural color from the image, depicting the Great Helmsman in dark grays and blacks. His steadfast gaze engages the viewer directly but imperiously, his lips pursed, imposing and aloof. Where previous works had suggested Wang's analytical approach to compositional forms in order to reveal their emotive influence on the viewer, here Wang takes a radical new approach, literalizing the standardized grid on which Mao's standard portrait would have been painted and bringing it to the foreground, its solid red hue and perfect proportions a shock against the dark hues and soft curves of Mao's remote visage.
On the one hand, Wang asserts throughout his early work that images are built upon obfuscated apparatuses that pander to our sentiments and manipulate our ideological affiliations. On the other hand, his works are a trenchant critique of a political system that operationalized art-making and cultural production so that it could achieve no other aim, to such an extent that the hand of the artist, his or her subjective expressions, were eliminated and restricted to the pro forma dictates of the political order.
When the series was first exhibited publicly in the "No U-Turn" exhibition of Chinese avant-garde art in Beijing's National Gallery in the spring of 1989, the series caused a stir for depicting what some thought to be Chairman Mao behind prison bars. On the contrary, the image suggests nothing less than the cage set for the artist. The complete lack of emotionalism in the painting is suggestive of the personal struggle Wang must have felt, trying to extract himself from the inherited dictates of representation and art-making that he grew up with, to find his voice as an independent artist. With Mao Zedong - No. 2 of Red Box (Lot 1030), Wang has identified clearly what would become his primary tools as an artist, that through the appropriation and juxtaposition of inherited, recognized forms and symbols, placed in dynamic and unexpected new relationships - he could give expression to his own subjective and creative positions, thereby discovering the new directions for the great and iconic works that would follow.