Wang Gunagyi is one of the central figures of the Chinese Political Pop movement. Best known for his Great Criticism series, Wang creates links between the propaganda aesthetics of the Cultural Revolution and striking imagery of American Pop, which in turn was inspired by the new levels of commercialism and consumerism penetrating popular culture in the U.S. By doing so, he holds a mirror up to China's present. With a critical attitude towards his home country, he pokes fun at China's globalization efforts and international exchange, viewing both as nothing but commercial greed.
In Great Criticism - Materialist's Art (2006) (Lot 2046), the characters portrayed here are reminiscent of the iconic imagery of Chinese propaganda posters in from the 1960s onwards (Fig. 1), while the hopes, visions, and idealism of that era are complicated and challenged by Wang's reinterpretation of those forms. Wang subverted these original associations with the ironic employment of 'Materialist's' that replaces the communist doctrine. The social transformation brought about by China's integration into the global economy is Wang's primary area of concern. With his composition, he includes figures of the scholar lifting up the all-important 'Little Red Book' - a doctrine that was at heart of the Chinese cultural revolution, alongside a heroic and fearless soldier, accompanied by a ranked soldier led by a labourer who lifts a larger-than-life 'Red Book' almost in religious celebration, as if its contents will both guide and protect them. Wang's Great Criticism series has highlighted the tensions and ironies of China's radical ideological transformation in the contemporary era, from the idealism of the revolution to the superficial materialism of a consumerist society. As such, the inclusion of "Materialist's Art" as the banner under which these figures march is especially provocative. It evokes both the rigors of tenets of Marxist materialism and the critique of labour and value that fuelled the great revolutions of the 20th century. At the same time, it of course evokes the materialism of a capitalist economy and its superficial values. Throughout the series, Wang suggests the hollow spirituality of the capitalist system, but here he seems to also beg the question: under which system do we find more rewarding art?
The visual configurations of the figures and superimposed emblems of 'Materialist's' and 'Art', combined with the bold outlines of the figures accentuate the flatness of the canvas, further evoking mass produced imagery. Furthermore, the unsparing use of repeated number '34567' and '67890' which are meticulously stamped across the canvas also recall that of mass produced woodcut prints akin to the traditional making of propaganda poster. The juxtaposition of commercial advertising and hand-produced poster graphics render Wang's composition a playful take on the power of semiotic. While Wang's work is clearly rooted in Chinese experience, it also participates in an important conceptual trend in Western contemporary art found, for example, in the works of Barbara Kruger, renown for her deconstruction of the ideological dynamics inherent to all image-making, combined jarring text and image juxtapositions to reveal these taken-for-granted systems. Pairing Wang's Materialist's Art with Kruger's Untitled (I shop therefore I am) (Fig. 2), we see how both artists employ the visual semantic of mass produced imagery, stripped of extraneous details, create dynamic and provocative associations, inviting the viewer to contemplate and re-examine the politics of everyday life.
Indeed, Wang, more than just reflecting on his social environment, is participating in multiple conceptual discourses of contemporary art with this series. The marks of the numbers on the canvas, for example, have a double function: on the one hand, they ground the work in a specific history of production and. On the other hand, their ambiguous statuses imply a conceptual nod to the arbitrary nature of meaning and signs. This approach is evokes that of Japanese conceptual artist On Kawara, who is known for his uses of numbers and dates to document the passage of time in his own life (Fig. 3). Hence, in comparison, Wang's conceptual rendering of these arbitrary numbers suggest the documentation of a time already passed. The semiotic of numbers in Great Criticism - Materialist's Art are twofold, one that signifies a gestural replacement of the artist brushstroke, on the other hand they signify an abstract documentation of time and place, leaving considerable space for the viewer to assemble and discover the layers of meaning in Wang's work.
Underlining the ideological tensions in this painting, the composition of this piece is narrated with a pyramid composition, wherein the visual rhythm leads the viewer's eyes from the emblem of 'Materialist's' to the Red Book, then clockwise to the solider, to 'Art', and finally back to the slanted red block background pointing to the 'Materialist's' slogan once again. The dynamism of this form reveals Wang's early interest in composition and affect, and it is drawn equally from the Chinese communist background as it is from the heroics found in such works as Eugene Delacroix's "Liberty Leading the People" (Fig. 4), wherein visual flow of the monumental group is meant to draw the viewer into the movement. In Wang Guanyi's work, the subtle echoes of red, for example, found on the two Red Books, on the general's collar and on the slanted red block at centre background of the painting, created a visual unity that draw us into the passion embodied by this movement despite the ambiguity of their goals.
Through these sets of visual and conceptual oppositions, coupled with Wang's own seductive use of colour, form and composition, Wang presents a complex and ambiguous work, one that casts a critical eye on China's seemingly heedless embrace of consumerism, while also inserting the unique visual culture and historical experience of China's 20th century into the great discourses of contemporary art. Together these threads create a conflicted philosophical opposition: what was for Wang a crude turn away from Marxist materialism to simply materialism itself. Such contrasts allow Wang to simultaneously explore the opposing ideologies of Socialism and Capitalism. He regarded the Great Criticism series as "post-pop work solving the problem of the commodity economy." Thus, his works capture the commodity and commercial movement of the time, poking fun at the new values of this supposedly liberalized world. It also implies the ways in which the idealism and heroisms of the Cultural Revolution proved to be untenable and hollow, but perhaps not any less so than the consumerism that has replaced it. By delving into such profound questions of our times and yet with such a clear set of visual strategies, Wang's Great Criticism became an important historical, political, and ideological source for critics and an indispensable new politically-charged artistic language in Chinese contemporary art.