Mythos Dynasty Collection
Though a champion of Rationalism, Wang Guangyi was not without utopian sensibilities during the '85 New Wave Art Movement. He was one of the main conceptual fountainheads of the "Northern Art Group," which he formed with Shu Qun and other like-minded artists. During the 1980's, he attempted to "represent a lofty conceptual beauty, which would include a timeless humanistic harmony and wholesome emotions" in his paintings. For him, true art is metaphysical, tinged with a Nietzschean sense of tragedy but also infused with a profound religious spirituality. Frozen Northern Wastelands of 1985 is orderly, cold, and pared down, with a cool palette that is heavy and gloomy. The nebulous clumps, seemingly with their backs turned towards the viewer, give off an aura of austerity. This is the classical portrait of Wang's artistic philosophy. In the Post-Classical Series begun in 1986, classical works of art become objects of Wang's analytical gaze. Here the idealizing tendency of Frozen Northern Wastelands is somewhat tempered, but the loneliness, desolation, and austere religiosity remain if not become even strengthened by the series' cruel and painful atmosphere. The critic Zhou Yan has commented on such a creative spirit: "This kind of neo-religious mentality is precisely Wang Guangyi's state of mind as well as that of his young group. It is also the fundamental spirit that pervades human artistic endeavours in general. They do not deny (and in fact gladly admit) the commonalities that their 'quasi-religiosity' shares with medieval religiosity and social mentalities. A profound veneration of God and for an ideal state of being motivates the artists' wholehearted pursuit of them. All this is based, as Wang Guangyi puts it, on 'the loftiness of faith, the sacredness of faith, and the enormous, all-enveloping power of the religious spirit.'"
Once familiar with Wang Guangyi's 1980's artistic context, we begin to
recognize the transitional character of Mao: O (Lot 120) of 1988. At the
center of this work is a red silhouette of a human figure, around which
are arranged red squares. It is difficult to tell what the dotted lines and
the letters on the silhouette signify. Wang Guangyi began the Red Rationalism and Black Rationalism series in 1987. The former involved
simply the addition of red grids to the iconography of the Post-Classical
Series, whereas Black Rationalism departed completely from his previous compositional structures, using instead monochromatic humanoid shapes combined with black grids. Seen in light of these works, Mao: O is compositionally a fusion of Red Rationalism and Black Rationalism, signalling the beginnings of Wang Guangyi's turn from the religious rationality of the 80's towards analytical rationality. Already in 1988, Wang proposed "Expunging Zealous Humanism," attempting to abandon affected and exaggerated displays of humanism in his art in pursuit of an essential spirituality. On the other hand, however, metaphysical images used to critique material realities easily become dry diagrammatic lessons. Therefore to maintain a rational spirit while keeping his imagery alive was Wang Guangyi's challenge in the late 80's. In iconography and meaning, Wang Guangyi's contributions to the 1989 "China/Avant-Garde" exhibition—the Mao series of works that featured red and black grids and the letters "A" and "O"—evidently sprung from the intellectual efforts that took place already in Mao: O.
Immediately after its creation,Wang Guangyi's Great Criticism Series of
the early 1990's participated in a host of important exhibitions, such as
"China's New Art, Post-1989," and has been deemed his signature by
many. But Wang has never dwelled too much on the series, a pictorial
juxtaposition of Cultural Revolution-era posters against commercial
brand logos. Ever since the Post-Classical Series, he has been simultaneously "expunging zealous humanism" and maintaining a "cultural revisionist" stance. He said, "All problems have already been solved by our predecessors. There are volumes upon volumes of art historical tomes to prove this. Painters living today are unfortunate... The wisest thing to do is first to admit this cultural fact, then decide how to proceed. One saving grace is that none of the existing cultural iconographies have absolute authority; we can reevaluate any given set with a critical eye and revise it in various ways. It is precisely this act of cultural revision that validates my existence."
Joseph Beuys' Dead Hare (Lot 121), created in 1994, is representative
of this attitude. It refers to German artist Joseph Beuys' performance art, How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare. An artist with extreme criticality, Beuys believed that human social behaviour is also art and can transform society and foster harmonious social relations. In Wang Guangyi's work, the image of Beuys holding a hare is "revised" into a Wang-style silhouette, combined with poster text reminiscent of Pop Art. Wang does not at all understate his influence by Andy Warhol and Joseph Beuys: "If I hadn't first looked at Warhol's or Beuys' works, but rather saw other artists' works, then I might have become a very different person today." Joseph Beuys' Dead Hare showcases Warhol's Pop and Beuys' allegory simultaneously; its social critique is presented in a completely light-hearted manner. As such it can be called a tribute to masters, a relatively rare occurrence in Wang Guangyi's creative enterprise. Moreover, from Mao: O to Joseph Beuys' Dead Hare, we witness Wang Guangyi's continual experimentation. Compared to the ponderous sobriety the 80's works tended to embody, this fusion of Pop accessibility and metaphoric suggestiveness clearly struck Wang Guangyi as more effective. In the Great Criticism Series, the revolutionary images of workers, farmers, and soldiers are fused with advertisements of commercial goods that have come to saturate our society. With two sets of temporally distinct iconographies installed against each other, the result is a mutual deconstruction as well as a reciprocal derision. Wang Guangyi's persistent creation of the Great Criticism Series attests to the power of the concept.
Wang Guangyi created VISA Series concurrently with Great Criticism
Series. In VISA, he replaced the object of his critique, the cultural realm, with international politics, psychology, and sociology. Perhaps inspired by his participation in multiple overseas exhibitions, his VISA Series (Lot 122) of 1996 is a hound's passport. Over the center of the canvas "VISA" is written in print font and sketched over it are the hound's place of birth, name, sex, along with a bunch of confusing arrows that connote wrong directions. Set against a red background, these motifs may suggest criticism of China's control of its citizens' movement, but in fact the sarcasm comes more from the artist's personal experience. Speaking of the inspiration behind the VISA Series, Wang Guangyi says that "VISA originated in the impressions of various nations based on their embassies' visa-issuing departments. Visas restrain everyone under the power of the state and subject everyone to investigation. The visa is perhaps the most ideological document that passes through every person's life... One's emotions,
religion, national identity, and other subtle issues are all reflected in
it." What Wang Guangyi proposes is not only a ridiculed identity. As
this painting suggests, everyone is placed under the shadow of international politics, and it is difficult to be a pure subject uncoloured by cultural identity. The image of the hound represents the persistent influence this cultural experience inflicts on the general public.
Mao: O, Joseph Beuys' Dead Hare, VISA Series, and to Great Criticism
Series: Audi (Lot 123)—in these four works that span a decade, we witness Wang Guangyi's unwavering resolve to create multiple sets of
iconography and to substantiate and enrich their contents. In his book
"The '85 Movement," Gao Minglu describes Wang Guangyi as a "warrior-image-maker." The trajectory of these four works demonstrates the accuracy of Gao's assessment. It is precisely Wang Guangyi's tireless discovery and creation of new ideas that guarantee the continuity of the cultural logic of his works and maximize their critical impact.
 Wang Guangyi, "What Kind of Painting Does Our Era Need?" Jiangsu Huakan, 1986:4.
 Zhou Yan, "Art, Philosophy, Culture: On the Iconography of Wang Guangyi's Post-Classical Series," The Lion Art Monthly (Taiwan), 1998:5, pp. 111-116.
 Wang Guangyi, "Answers to Three Questions," Meishu, 1988:3.
 "Wang Guangyi Talks about Warhol and Beuys," Bazaar Art, 2011:4.
 Wang Guangyi, "On Expunging Zealous Humanism" Jiangsu Huakan 1990:10.
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