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 reevaluation of Chinese contemporary art and culture. Graduating from the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts in Hangzhou in 1984, Wang was greeted by the flourishing cultural transformations of the "New Wave" art movement. Along with a few thousand of the nation's young artists, Wang wasted no time in embracing this environment of unprecedented individualistic and multi-directional lines of inquiry into new artistic philosophies and language, encouraged by China's new liberalization. As forbearer of the pivotal Northern Artists Group, Wang advocated an interrogation into essential and universal compositional forms, de-politicized visual vocabulary.
An important work from the Rationality series painted in 1989, Red Rationality: Revision of Idols (Lot 1033) is an appropriation of the Pieta, with two groups of figures congregating on either side of central figures, placed behind a stark red grid. The original symbol of religious piety and devotion (Fig. 1) is stripped bare of any embellishments into abstracted forms of figures in a sobering contrast of the tri-colours of red, black and white. Illustrated in several important publications including Lu Peng's History of Modern Chinese Art 1979-1989, the work has acquired its importance as a representation of this crucial moment in Wang Guangyi's artistic development in the distinctive Rationalist paintings.
Inspired by his early years in Harbin, the simplified human figures and the solemn rationality seen in his earlier Frozen Northern Wasteland Series are continued here in form and appropriated into Western canonical paintings that are deconstructed and placed behind grids of red and black, in this well-balanced and perfectly-proportioned standard form. This deconstructive, formalistic investigation into art, characterized by the functional use of scholarly references, is on one hand, a clear interrogation of the stale and stagnant high art forms. On another, the universal, emotive influence of the image is conceptually highlighted by the lack of distinction in the figures. The effect is reminiscent of the metaphysical, Surrealist works of Giorgio de Chirico (Fig. 2), who classicized the evocative, brooding mood in his images of deserted cities, filled with symbols and highly structured compositions.
The aesthetic methodology and paradoxical element in the proliferation and adaptation of visual codes and symbols in art that was solidified during this period, laid foundation for his seminal and iconic work of the Mao triptych that was exhibited in the China/Avant-Garde exhibition in 1989. In a daring step, Wang literalized the grid onto the standard portrait of Mao, and established his critical role in political commentary in Chinese contemporary art. Like the repeated geometry in Sol LeWitt's works from the 1960s (Fig. 3), Wang's adoption of the grid take on a center-stage in his works and becomes a gesture of his radical concept and progressive re-evaluation of Chinese contemporary art and culture.