This mini retrospective just finished at Paisnel Gallery gives us some definitive snapshots from a 50 year career – a career that is so difficult to pin down to one particular mode or type of painting. Why is this so? There are some highly focused kinds of chaos and an ongoing drama of contrary painterly forces at work in Garry Wragg’s art. The hang reflected this irrepressible quality of exploration. Bringing smaller and larger works from different periods into close proximity highlighted a restless, energetic and searching approach to painting. There seems to be no fear of sudden shifts in focus. I think this suggests an openness to experience and a cooler painterly intelligence honed for ‘in the moment’ decision-making and the revelations that follow.
I’m not happy with my own use of terms like ‘chaos’ or ‘forces’. Maybe I could say that Wragg finds visual equivalents for a keen sensitivity to kinaesthestic sensation and energy in his work? Or maybe it’s all about ‘touch’? Paint can act as a conduit for all kinds of impulses. But these impulses are protean and constantly shape-shifting. Paint can catch, direct and release these energies. It can contain contrary inner and outer worlds, sensations and feeling. It can be the medium in which internal and external realities are able to meet – to fuse. Wragg’s art seems in some ways dedicated to this most complex interplay of objective and subjective experience and sensation.
Even in the early works like ‘November Night Trees’ 1966 we are already dealing with a bringing together of somewhat contrary approaches to abstraction and Wragg is openly abstracting from a felt experience in the world. (He is happy to tell us how direct visual or felt experience has informed his practice throughout his career with excerpts taken from a major book appearing by the works.) Hard-edged box-like forms hang in an altogether dusk like misty drifts of greys, greens and scumbled blacks. Deep blue diagonals glow ominously as they flit through the darkness. This bringing together of a hard-edge vocabulary with a thin, atmospheric and lyrical painterliness at first might seem jarring. But in actuality a brooding and compelling tension is achieved through the orchestration of opposites.
Trying to articulate the nature of these forces or focused energies in painting is difficult. The difficulty is only increased by certain attitudes to overtly physical and painterly abstract art. What I don’t mean by ‘forces’ is a ‘force of personality’. To say that a successful historical Ab-Ex painting is one that truly reveals the nature of the artist who made it is a cliché that can only undermine the real value of a de Kooning, Kline or Pollock et al. These works have to operate on so many other levels, through visual qualities that can only be registered in the paintings themselves, not in lazy generalisations about artists’ motives, artistic or otherwise. Whether or not a painting gets close to revealing some essential truth of a painter’s personality or some notion of an authentic self is pure conjecture. It is riddled with the good old-fashioned hocus-pocus that perpetuates the cult of personality in the field of the fine arts. Not only is this one-dimensional interpretation of physical -painting naive, but it is often used in a frankly disingenuous way by critics of this approach. The negative criticism that focuses solely on the ego driven mania of the usually male artist has been absolutely taken for granted for the last 30 odd years. I only mention it here because one has to sweep all that baggage to one side to see what’s really happening in a good Wragg painting.
As I tried to outline above, citing Pollock and de Kooning would be too easy. I believe it would not do justice to the openness and decidedly diverse and mind-bogglingly differing energies at play in this show. Like the Ab-Exers mentioned though, Wragg is not afraid to use drawing in painting and because of that, I think, there’s a different and deft sort of physicality in operation that is all Wragg’s own. It appears throughout this show in many different guises, whether overtly as in ‘Subi’s Entrance’, 1984, or in an ethereal and subtle form as in ‘Singing Blood’, 2006-7. It’s a kind of spatial painting that does not need to be contained and ultimately subdued by some singular organising principle or other. There is so much abstract painting about that lives solely on repeated ‘forms’, grids or densely packed and worked rectangles that ploddingly push us across a painting in that sort of visual ‘call and reply’ type way. Wragg’s work generally does not rely on too-obvious colour contrasts or dramatic meetings of ‘edges’ to sustain interest. Nor are we expected to endure what an insightful critic recently described as ‘death by a thousand flecks’ where a painting becomes too granular, self-referential and mired in ‘process’.
However, we may get aspects of all these elements of picture-making as Wragg openly grabs from modernist painting’s history of forms or, with equal fervour, the memories of sensations or visual triggers activated by interactions with the real world. Not only are there hints of that world revealed in colour and shape, but more importantly, we get glimmers of how those experiences are felt and then become manifest in the physicality of the painting process.
In ‘Carnival‘ there are a multiplicity of organising principles at work driven directly by the way paint is expertly manipulated in a myriad of ways in different areas or zones of the painting. There is a weighty density to the blacks in the bottom left/centre that sit within the triangular white shard pointing upward to the centre of the work. This is countered by another white triangle, this time holding in a strong deep red. This direct drawing is subtly subdued by a change in speed and an altogether different lightness of touch coming from the billowing creamy yellows rising from the bottom right. Suddenly the painting feels full of air and light. Any sense of a background starts to push forward and fragment as it does so, a powerful red pushes forward off the pink ground from top right to centre. It is held down by another white shard, larger and slightly more aggressively realised. Its points push out toward the centre right and out to the left seemingly to be challenged again by cascading pulses of longer black brush strokes splitting open and fraying the blue top left corner and snaking down the left edge. This blue ground then seems to atomise to become like a cloud of gas seeping through the angular black striations and mixing with the drifting creamy white and yellows and greens culminating near centre top. The greens here seem to be pushing out from left to right into the painting leaving the frayed blue left edge of the painting to lean in like a hugely enlarged section of a door frame from a Bonnard interior. Look at how four curved bands of a deeper richer pink twist open the bottom centre of the painting, spatially opening up the play of forms above so delicately. In all this there is the courting of chance, yes, but never a wholesale surrender to it.
If there is a single-mindedness to Wragg’s approach to painting then it is revealed in the complex layering or accumulations of signs and gestures rather than it being marked by a rather cliched series of unremitting Modernist reductions. However, Wragg’s trajectory so far can be marked by periods of analysing structure in picture-making requiring significant simplification of form and nuanced colour relationships. But even some of these, such as ‘Green & Black Rectangles’ 1974 have their basis in real world experience such as a football pools coupon, for instance. If there is an underpinning architecture at play in the later works, it is one born of multiplicity of forms and a recognition of paint’s natural affinity with human physicality. If they are abstract, then they are also spatial and hugely elastic in the forms and approaches they attempt to encompass. They are dynamic and ambitious about what can be held in a captivating balance rather than what can be reduced to rather dubious notions of ‘essences’ and ‘authentic gestures’.
“Three separate fragments as one. Spiders webs, paving stones in Normandy and internet fragmentation of data and sensations of time and space…” Although I wouldn’t want to reduce the impact of the painting ‘Webzone X Three Into One’ by referring to any accompanying text, I think the words sum up the challenges that Wragg might set himself in the wider painting process. The challenges, though, must be met in the painting itself, the results being a visual statement first and foremost. There is an extreme diversity of brushstrokes and layering in ‘Webzone’. The sensation is like a visual pulsing that runs around the surface; this pulse is interrupted by bland scraped-up beige fragments that remain resolutely on the surface. But their kind of crumbling density seems suddenly to give way and the eye is channelled deep into the painting. This oscillating effect seems to hinge on the interplay of yellows, oranges and blues fragmented by those sharp brush marks that almost start to produce facets in a kind of molten cubist space. As the eye moves deeper, more and more nuanced colour reveals itself in snaking violets and blues. A splash of cooler green moving down from top left brings us back up to the surface once more. A sense of pressure, rotation and friction built from a myriad of forces and counter forces produces a singular singing surface. In these contrasts and subtleties lies Wragg’s originality.
Wragg’s best works are a challenge to a rather tired idea about Modernist art (both gestural and reductive strands), and at the same time a timely riposte to the circularity of references at work in the worst of the meta painting born of our post-modern era. Wragg’s interesting mix of references always manage to add up to more than the sum of their parts. Much has been made of the re-evaluation of Monet’s ‘Water Lily’ paintings by second generation Ab-Exers. Joan Mitchell’s painterly calibrations of sensations experienced in the landscape, rather than depicting the landscape itself, chimes with aspects of Wragg’s approach. In Wragg’s colour, generally, I can see Monet and Renoir for sure. But its Bonnard’s edgy and tensile paint work and the fertile tensions between fluidity of bodily forms and architectural space in Matisse that feel like the more palpable and guiding influences. But then we have to add the breakthrough Americans of the post-second world war period, such as those mentioned above and others like Tworkov. But I would also throw in Europeans such as Hartung and aspects of the School of Paris. I’d even mention British stalwarts of figuration Auerbach and Kossoff too, especially in their London landscapes. This open embracing of history, again questions that pervasive cliched idea that the history of abstract art is a linear narrative of progress through exclusions. Wragg is happy to rub one set of painterly values, approaches and architectures up against another. The friction created seems to fuel invention as it reveals itself as a profound orchestration of impulses, reactions and counter-actions all held so compellingly together in the articulation of the paint itself.