Abstract Critical

Gary Wragg: Positive Provisional

Written by Sam Cornish

The brief text below is from the catalogue of Gary Wragg’s forthcoming exhibition ‘Gary Wragg: Spontaneity of movements’ at Alan Wheatley Art. Since writing it a few weeks ago I have come across another article [link: http://neotericart.com/2012/02/13/diebenkorns-ocean-park-series-provisional-action-provisional-vision-by-matthew-ballou/] which is based around pretty much the same idea – that is to discuss an abstract artist, one grounded in Abstract Expressionism, in relation to Raphael Rubinstein’s 2009 article ‘Provisional Painting’.   Where I discuss Wragg, Matthew Ballou looks at Richard Diebenkorn.

Rubinstein discusses a range of artists who ‘demur at the prospect of a finished work, court self-sabotaging strategies, [who might] sign his or her name to a painting that looks, from some perspectives, like an utter failure’. In contrast both Balloe and I see the provisional working positively within the paintings of Wragg or Diebenkorn. For Ballou the positive provisionality of Diebenkorn is founded upon ‘a negotiation of “rightness” rather than an acceptance of “the not quite right.”’ I feel much the same about Wragg – his paintings have an admirable openness, a quality of continual search but do not imply that his search is hopeless; he certainly does not accept failure, though he often risks it. We also both see the provisional in Wragg or Diebenkorn as actively operating within their paintings, so that they, in Ballou’s words, ‘shift and modulate under the eyes of viewers’. Though I do not mention it in my text, the ‘temporal’, which Ballou stresses as an important element of the viewer’s experience of Diebenkorn’s paintings, is at least as crucial to Wragg’s.

Ballou suggests that Diebenkorn’s painting involved a ‘ceaseless reappraisal of the rightness of the constellation of visual dynamics in effect at any particular time within the work at hand’. The word ‘constellation’ highlights the main difference between paintings by Wragg and Diebenkorn. Constellation seems much more appropriate for Wragg than it does for Diebenkorn as it suggests, to me, the potential for a constant reappraisal, of options opening up in all directions. Where Diebenkorn uses a provisional approach to open and complicate our experience of his compositions, Wragg actively uses the provisional to avoid composing. In this sense (and I am not making an assertion about quality – though I would stand by the idea that these sort of judgments are important and have value) Wragg is more provisional than Diebenkorn.

It is worth noting that I have paid more attention to the position of Wragg within the current situation, something that is understandable given that Wragg is very much still painting. This is also in part a reaction to the historical justifications that Rubinstein employs, and which I find, as someone in their twenties excited by abstract art, fairly depressing. But most importantly I have done so because I see in the constellations of Wragg’s paintings an immense generosity, a myriad of structures which other artists could actively and positively respond to and adopt. This type of visual dialogue seems vital for the future of an abstract painting with which it is worth engaging.

March 2012


Gary Wragg: Positive Provisional

Gary Wragg is a painter whom artists of about my age (a clear generation younger) would do well to make something of a cult of. I am not sure how he would react to this idea or to its realization but it seems to me to have some legs. I’m going to begin to say why I think this is through comparison with a relatively recently named trend within abstract art.

A couple of weeks ago I came across the article ‘Provisional Painting’, in which Raphael Rubinstein considers the work of a number of artists that have for some years left me irritated or nonplussed.[1] In a way the article validated my responses to paintings which their apologist highlights as ‘uncertain, incomplete, casual, self-cancelling or unfinished’, as ‘amateur’, as achieving an ‘abject awkwardness’ or dealing in ‘sloppy craft, outmoded style, impenetrable obscurity’. The enjoyment validation brought was added to when I realized that, though he avoided the above traits, provisional was a word which well described Wragg’s art.

Beyond an aversion to market-ready finish or achievement (aversions which, happily for many of the painters Rubinstein discusses, the market has also adopted), Provisional Painting gains at least part of its justification through its historical position; that is, through the attitudes toward its predecessors and toward the current situation which its lack of finish, negation, etc., etc., can be taken to imply. Viewing the creation of masterpieces as ‘impossible’, Provisional Painting shies away from heroism. It also attempts to avoid the narratives, which though advanced by opposing camps are really two sides of the same coin, of constant past-defeating progression in painting and of painting’s demise (either long gone or imminent). Still committed to painting, however half-heartedly, Provisional Painting no longer wants to ‘fight’ to overcome what came before, nor does it simply want to abandon painting’s ship, but rather seeks ‘to break existing, perhaps unspoken, contracts with painting… in order to draw up other protocols that will renew the medium’

Wragg is also an artist who avoids heroic, definitive or authoritative statements, who posits a vision of art which is as circular, or perhaps labyrinthine, as it is progressive. In all these senses he is provisional, almost with a capital ‘P’. Where Wragg differs – or at least the most crucial of the many ways in which he differs – from those artists gathered under Rubinstein’s rubric is in his evident and overriding belief in art, and in abstract art, as a place of meaningful and compelling visual experience. Belief in visual experience, and crucially the ability to create it, underlies and makes convincing his openness and lack of dogmatism (it is hard to imagine a less dogmatic artist). It also allows him if not to attempt to defeat the past, then at least to profitably measure himself against it. He is able to draw on earlier moments in his own history and across the history of painting whilst managing to avoid introversion or quotation. He also side-steps the fixed grooves or sermonizing, implicit or explicit, which beset some other abstract artists who might be considered his near contemporaries. The fluidity of this stance lies somewhere at the heart of why I think he could be useful to a painter of my generation, showing a way through painting that avoids confrontation or failure, irony or antiquarianism.

Whilst I have sympathy with its disavowal of the heroic, the provisional in Provisional Painting appears to me an easily achieved (international) house-style. I find it hard to shake the prejudice that it presents vagueness, deflation or failure not because of the weight of history, but rather as it reflects and so justifies the apathy or lightly-worn irony of its audience or perhaps just serves artists as a kind of preemptive excuse. More importantly, despite Rubinstein’s protestations to the contrary, its practitioners appear primarily concerned with making gestures about painting and so to be working to a strategy or agenda. Readily theorized, art as strategy avoids the need for a belief in compelling visual experience and lessens the need for any actual engagement with the medium (with the complexities of how this particular painting might be made, and made effective), which in turn means it cannot add anything in the way of visual structures or images. Without these additions renewal remains an idea – and a hollow one at that.

In contrast, for Wragg the provisional is not a negation nor a conceptual gesture but rather a complex visual layering (an act he sees as central to painting) of affirmations, each asserting itself in partial contradiction to those it precedes and follows. Crowding the surfaces and spaces of his pictures these affirmations lead to incredibly mutable structures which both reveal and undermine a fully achieved order. Each mark becomes part of a matrix of contingencies that variously shift to open up successions of briefly held clarities. This shifting embodies the provisional within his paintings. The experience of looking at Wragg’s paintings is one which requires a kind of positive and engaged openness, in which the viewer is constantly called into the search for fresh relations, and which presents us, within each painting and from painting to painting, with a constantly evolving set of possibilities. More important – as more concrete, more tied to the specifics of picture-making – than the projection of a fluid stance toward the past that I mentioned above is the almost dizzying variety of structures and colour relations which these possibilities consist of and which Wragg opens up for other painters.

Lurking behind Provisional Painting, and of immense importance to Wragg, stand the achievements of American Abstract Expressionism. Though Rubinstein acknowledges the gestural painting of Robert Motherwell or Joan Mitchell as precedents for Provisional Painting there still remains a lingering feeling that it is precisely the achievements of post-war American painting that have caused the retreat he describes (even if he does not quite describe it as a retreat). It is as if abstract expressionism and its progeny could not neither be fully faced nor avoided, with the only option seeming to be an isolation of its heroic rhetoric (ignoring the fact that this was only ever one aspect of its endeavour) so it can then be caricatured, parodied or deflated.

Again Wragg’s stance is more engaged and more complex; he does not avoid the heroic aspects of Abstract Expressionism by ironising or deflating its rhetoric but somehow seems to avoid its heroism by opening its wider achievements out from the inside. He does this through variety and incident, through leaving contradictions active, through allowing both the ugly and the lyrical, the direct and the tangential, though avoiding composition, symmetry or an evenly resolved all-overness, through intimacy, through giving into the sweet or the voluptuous, through more than occasional failure (something highlighted by his long-term supporter and collector Bryan Robertson), through a non-exclusive abstraction able to contain figuration (diffused or overt), through striving to acknowledge different registers of experience and through undercutting seriousness with moments of levity or exuberance.

As an important adjunct to this list, it is worth looking at Wragg’s proclivity for looping back to earlier moments in his painting and in the history of art. Titian, Matisse, Bonnard and de Kooning (and in particular their various generous sensualities) loom large in his cannon, and he has interpreted works by the first two, as well as responded – both directly or through what Robertson called ‘after-images’ – to Rubens, Cézanne, Goya and Giacometti, amongst others. These homages link to a particularly intriguing aspect of his attitude to art, an idiosyncrasy in an artist who embraces the idiosyncratic whilst in the main not falling prey to the whimsical. Despite the complete absence of heroism in his paintings or, as far as I can tell, in his sense of himself, he is very attentive to the lives of the artists to whose art he is committed. This has led to a number of quasi-pilgrimages to the sites where artists worked.

In his introduction Wragg refers to his recent visit to the Acropolis as well as his 1985 visit to de Kooning at his studio in Springs, East Hampton, New York state. This latter occasion is of immense importance to Wragg and he often refers to various aspects of it in conversation. As his thoughts on de Kooning’s stance imply, the impact it had on Wragg lies in the direct way in which he could make connections between the artist, his art and the studio. In 2008 Wragg made a visit of a similar nature, though without the actual presence of the artist, when he stayed at Le Rêve, Matisse’s studio in Vence in the south of France. Rosy-Fingered Dawn, in the current exhibition, works to integrate a different set of connections. Its title follows one of the great pastoral paintings de Kooning made in response to bicycle trips to Louse Point, a watery spit of land near his studio, and in turn is a reference to an epithet which reoccurs throughout Homer’s Odyssey. Wragg’s appropriation of the title signals his desire to combine the recent revival of his interest in the art of Ancient Greece with his response to de Kooning, particularly the memories of the trip he himself made to Louse Point after leaving de Kooning’s studio on a November evening during the 1985 visit. This complex filtering finds an equivalent in the complexities of Wragg’s paintings, but perhaps we can say that, though the connections are important, even vital for Wragg, they are simply interesting for us, and we certainly do not need to be aware of the details to appreciate the paintings. We can feel the effect without having to trace it back to its source.

Beyond a kind of biographical interest, for me the range of Wragg’s interest in the art of the past often tells in his colour. Amidst the diverse and frequently surprising relations his works present (or rather amidst the relations which seem to occur in his pictures – colour in Wragg often feels glimpsed, as if revealed through a slow or sudden parting, or as if just noticed after previously existing on the cusp of sight) there is, every now and then, the feeling of recognition. This may involve the depths of a Venetian red, the light which glides or scuttles through Bonnard’s bathrooms or the memory of the just felt sun which Matisse could shoot through a cool blue interior.

These occasional flashes of remembrance or rescue sit alongside Wragg’s habit of returning to earlier moments in his own work, a tendency represented in some depth here. Cornerstone, Last Red and London Allegory are three of a number of works from The Edge series that takes its cue from a group of paintings from the late sixties which were accidentally destroyed in a studio move in 1971 (studies for or small versions of these sixties works were exhibited by Alan Wheatley Art in 2010). Paintings such as Interior and Now, Still Life Interior or Interior, partly inspired by his 2008 residence at Vence, began as responses to his Interior with Figure of 1967, whilst Red, White & Blue, Diagonal, Steep Diagonal 2 and Steep Diagonal 3 from the Box series all follow a group of paintings he made between 1966 and 1967. What these re-versions seem to indicate is that his backward looking moves are not made nostalgically or in the hope of reassurance or comfort, but as a way of maintaining difficulty; allowing undiscovered aspects of his previous work to appear or to filter his current approach through (and test it against) the submerged impulses from which mark by mark it emerged. This swinging motion of give and take between past and present seems an important lesson for abstract painting in general. For Wragg it is just one aspect of his positive and provisional painting, where the circular or the labyrinthine is the condition of forward movement.

Sam Cornish
February 201

[1] Raphael Rubinstein, ‘Provisional Painting’, Art in America, May 2009. Raoul De Keyser, Albert Oehlen, Christopher Wool, Mary Heilmann and Michael Krebber are the first five mentioned by Rubinstein. It is perhaps worth noting that Wragg is either younger or less that ten years older that these artists.

  1. Patrick Jones said…

    This remains for me a really interesting and profound piece of writing about Painting.As a result I was able to invite Sam to participate in a discussion on Abstract Painting at the Appledore festival,with Mel Gooding and John Daly.I feel that Gary and Basil Beattie have contributed greatly to the U.K.Painting world by there independant positions.That the problem,or crises, which Robin Greenwood alludes to often, is above all a cultural failing in the lack of engagement by institutions and curators to deal with their work ,does not diminish their individual acheivement.

  2. Keith Williams said…

    I have never met Gary Wragg, but became aware of him and his paintings through friends who attended a workshop he led at Matisse’s studio. In recent years I explored my own painting philosophy, combined with research and experiments, though in my paintings there is still representation. I was aware from observations that breathing and state of mind were important, with body, mind and emotions working as one, all supported by confidence gained through knowledge and experience. I later found these elements are explained within Chi and Gary is a Tai Chi master. Looking at conscious and subconscious questioning the difference is between making a conscious act or a subconscious response. In Tai Chi the subconscious response is the most powerful. It would seem the essence of Chi is important within the paintings, therefore removing representation and composition it supports that way of working. Everything about these paintings seems to grow subconsciously.

  3. jenny meehan said…

    What an excellent read, thank you.

    I am not quite sure what you mean by “avoiding composition” though, as in the paintings shown, there is a strong sense of composition, you must mean that is is more covert maybe?

    Composition is essential to any painting working. I love the way his paintings work. It is the skeleton beneath the flesh, and how generously clothed these paintings are.

    • Geoff Hands said…

      This is a very interesting and problematic point. “Avoiding composition” may not literally be true – because it happens.
      Once the canvas has been chosen it will, logically, be a particular dimension/size and format (square, portait or landscape).
      From considering Wragg’s paintings and being aware of the process of a particular kind of abstract painting (the expressive, gestural, organic rather than the geometric, measured, hard edge) I assume that the artist avoids a pre-determined, prescriptive process. A clever ‘knowing’ or ‘expertise’ is likewise avoided.
      The painting process (action and non-action) dictates the ultimate composition. So the action recorded is contained within the boundaries (the ‘edge’ may influence of course) but is free within this physical 2D field – hence an insistence and celebration of intuitive decisions.
      So the ‘skeleton’ is constructed in the very process of making the painting – and the clothes fit perfectly!

      • Sam Cornish said…

        Thanks for the positive comments…

        Re: composition; What I meant was that Wragg attempts to avoid a imposing a scheme from the outset, or the sort of painting which achieves resolution through a kind of even filling up of the canvas. He is also keen not to repeat himself; to maintain a variety from painting to painting as well as within each individual painting.

        How his return to old formats such as in the Edge Series or the Interiors (the last two images reproduced above) fits in with this desire to avoid repetition or imposed schemes is an interesting problem.

    • Keith Williams said…

      Composition is essential that I fully support But it can be structural and conscious, usually from the start and then amending, or subconscious and evolving with what feels right. The more recent paintings strike me as being constructed with what feels right using the minimum of conscious decisions. Those based upon a real situation have to contain more conscious structure within their composition, but as the years have passed and pure abstraction replaced semi-abstraction which allowed a greater proportion of subconscious actions to be used.

      As for other points raised in response. Conscious decisions have to take place with any painting like canvas size, shape and even making the first mark. Its colour shape, size and position on the canvas can then start subscobscious responses to it; or conscious ones. I simply feel with the more recent paintings most of the decisions are subconscious ones.

      • jenny meehan said…

        Composition is essential that I fully support But it can be structural and conscious, usually from the start and then amending, or subconscious and evolving with what feels right. The more recent paintings strike me as being constructed with what feels right using the minimum of conscious decisions. Those based upon a real situation have to contain more conscious structure within their composition, but as the years have passed and pure abstraction replaced semi-abstraction which allowed a greater proportion of subconscious actions to be used.”

        Yes, well put. It’s much harder, (I find personally) to work in a gradual composition process in a subconscious/instinctive led way! I’m thinking of changing tac for a while, to see what happens, and starting with more established structure from the outset of painting, work into this more organic compositions, (though I will probably take the structures from other paintings I have done, which were formed in a process led proceedure, so evolved organically anyway). I think with regard to emotional resonance, it will be interesting to see what transporting a composition pattern from one painting to another will do. It could be horrid. Maybe lack its own sense of identity. But it could be helpful, just in making that void a little less dependent on my self from the outset. When you are painting a lot of paintings at once, particularly for a deadline, it’s rather stressful relying on instinct alone, because you never know if the essential structure is going to emerge successfullly until the end of the painting! So practical considerations come in that way too. !!!

      • Keith Williams said…

        By thinking about it, it becomes a conscious act. ‘The artist’s intention plays no part in the creative process…’ Carl Jung.

  4. Geoff Hands said…

    This is such a thoughtful and perceptive article by Sam Cornish. The un-dogmatic and non-programmatic nature of Gary Wragg’s work is identified, and appreciated, with great insight.

    As a long term admirer of Wragg’s work I imagined that, if given human voice, his paintings and drawings might say, “Hey look, you can do this, you can see this with me. You can feel this and move both physically and emotionally – but be yourself and make up your own mind.”

    I cannot imagine that the artist would advocate following fashion or formalist dogma, or would court ‘contemporaneity’ in his art. There’s nothing ironical or pastiche-like in this marvellous body of work. Wragg’s paintings are always honest, at times humble, celebratory, searching or even apparently complete in their in-completeness. To me his work is always bursting with passion for the visual and confirms the necessity for the act of making (or ‘affirming’ as stated in the article). This is what makes the work intellectually astute and dissolves any distinction between concept and process; action and contemplation; letting go and going with.

    Whatever else has happened in fine art over the past few decades, Gary Wragg affirms the primacy of painting. Young artists (of Sam Cornish’s generation), take note…

  5. Patrick Jones said…

    I have followed Garys work since his sensational show at the ACME gallery thirty years ago.I am delighted to read Sam Cornishs intelligent and perceptive article on Gary Wragg.I very much look forward to seeing Garys paintings at Alan Wheatleys and at the Abstract Critical Awards.He is an artist I admire greatly and feel his work thoroughly deserves detailed scrutiny and interpretation.He is deserving of public recognition and critical acclaim.