Wang Guangyi is one of the central figures of the 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 modernisation efforts and international exchange, viewing both as nothing but commercial greed.
With such works as 2004’s Great Criticism: Hermés, Wang scrutinizes the dominance of icon-worship of Western brand products. By juxtaposing one of the world's most recognizable brand names and logos with famous scenes from propaganda posters of the Cultural Revolution, he creates an alliance between the authorities of power which show no sympathy toward China's past and present state. While the vigorous gestures of monumental proletarian images from the Mao era have already revealed themselves as a mendaciously colorful facade of an inhumane machinery, Wang attributes the same hypocrisy to Western consumerism. Wang’s works bear an important message and reflect the artist's complex socio-political exploration of the subject matter: The heroes of the revolution, namely soldiers, workers and peasants seem to be manning the front lines of ideology. On a blood-red background and dressed in the traditional wardrobe of the Communist party, a mass of dedicated and enthusiastic Mao supporters surge forward. With sharp black outlines and shadows, hardly distinguishable, the cartoon-like characters are a dynamic mass composed of yellowish color fields, their facial features tentatively implied by black silhouettes. The red background corresponds with the Little Red Book of the Cultural Revolution, combined with the stars, collars and pins to create a symbolism that evokes the idea of the omnipresence of Communism.
Significantly, the idealistic figures are contrasted with not only the crass consumerist logo but also with the word “NO” emerging as if a thought-bubble from the figures. While the meaning of the logo or the brand itself is secondary, its role as an ambassador of an opposing system is what creates this visual and ideological contrast, and it becomes unclear if the figures are rebelling or rejoicing. This way, Wang simultaneously critiques the legacy of communism in China, while also producing a critique of the radical turn towards consumerism evident in the country in the last two decades and the heedless abandonment of ideals in exchange for products.
The dominant motifs of Wang’s work are culled from the height of Chinese political propaganda, typically featuring some combination of the three ideal revolutionary types: workers, peasants and soldiers. Here a female worker, a male soldier and a farmer form a powerful pyramid, striding confidently forward carrying semi-automatic rifles in Great Criticism- Disney. Their gazes are fixed optimistically on the horizon, as if ready to confront any challenge. Typical of the Great Criticism series, two repeating, randomly selected numbers can be found stamped across the composition. During the Cultural Revolution (1966 – 1976), two licenses were required for the production of any image for public consumption: one to produce the image, and another to distribute it. These numbers then reference the extreme restrictions on creative production during Wang’s formative years. The logos from Western consumer culture initially had little concrete meaning for Wang per se. He did not necessarily have any specific associations with the Walt Disney brand or any other. Rather, the logos were appropriated in order to highlight the artist’s complex response towards China’s extraordinary historical changes. The heroic spirit of the revolution is confronted with the crass branding of western commercialism. Wang has stated, “In my view, the central point I want to express in the Great Criticism series is the ideological antagonism that exists between western culture and socialist ideology. The significance of this antagonism has more to do with issues in cultural studies than simply art in and of itself” (Wang Guangyi quoted in Wang Guangyi, Timezone 8, Hong Kong, 2002, p. 28). Wang’s appropriation of these two visual styles represents his ironic critique on the failure of the communist project and the restrictive cultural environment it produced, while also revealing his own nostalgia for a time of idealism and activism.
The Great Criticism works featured here, Rolex, Cartier, and Buick, capture the fury and power of Wang’s inspiration and aesthetic philosophy. Rolex and Cartier, both painted in 1995, are among the earliest examples from the series. Wang employs the classic figures of revolutionary imagery, building a mass of heroic figures in lockstep, marching towards the future. Wang’s figures and logos are almost deliberately naïve, as if drawn from a populist revolutionary impulse; they bear books, ink pens, and brushes, wielding the revolutionary tools of artists and scholars. Their coordinated dynamism, implies a larger almost sui generic collective, joining forces, and seducing the viewer into joining them as well.
In Buick from 1999, we can see how these dominant motifs have become sharpened for maximum visual impact. The proportions of the canvas have widened slightly to give the figures more room for dynamic action. Instead of marching towards the viewer in a somewhat celebratory mode, the two figures are united in their assault on an unnamed enemy, though the capitalist enemy is implied by Wang’s placement of the “Buick” logo. In these early works, Wang has stated that the logos he selected were not necessarily personally meaningful to him, so much as they were symbols of a foreign ideology encroaching on Chinese life. In both Buick and Cartier he adds a resounding “NO”, a possible reference to the controversial polemical text from the same time period, “China Can Say No”, which argued that China’s embrace of Western values had gone too far.
Wang juxtaposes these revolutionary types against the blunt commercialism of the logos. By finding a harmonious and powerful fusion of these two ideologies and visual systems, Wang exposes not only the irony of this union but also the ways in which these supposedly antithetical systems are nonetheless visually complementary. As a result, he reveals the evacuation of moral philosophy and idealism in the contemporary worldview’s of both East and West, revealing also perhaps his own nostalgia for a time of revolutionary political action.
Though Wang Guangyi’s work has erroneously been associated with Chinese Political Pop, in reality one of the main themes of his art can be found in its relationship to the transcendent. Juxtaposing revolutionary images with consumer logos, Wang’s canvases provocate with their duplicitous message, highlighting the conflict between China’s political past and commercialised present. Stylistically merging the government enforced aesthetic of agitprop with the kitsch sensibility of American pop, Guangyi’s work adopts the cold-war language of the 60s to ironically examine the contemporary polemics of globalisation.
Through his critique, Guangyi’s paintings weave intricate narratives, implicating the role of the artist as an active participant (both as subjugator and subservient) in economic and social policy. Guangyi treads a very delicate line between moral dictum and capitalist endorsement; the interpretation of his paintings alternates with the subjectivity of context. Amalgamating, confusing, and blurring opposing ideological beliefs, Guangyi’s billboard sized canvases readily sell out national valour, while simultaneously devaluing status symbol luxury for the proletariat cause.