I entered the financial hyperzone via a mall of classy brands: Tiffany, Austin Reed, Hublot. I wondered – do the members of the one percent consider themselves rich members of the middle class, or representatives of a new aristocracy? Across the plazas around Canary Wharf public art is the way big corporations create symbols of aristocratic aspiration that complement the bourgeois facade. Examples include a gigantic fibreglass geranium, a torqued spine of jenga-like columns in alert tension, or Igor Mitoraj’s Centaur (1984) half horse, half man, atop a plinth. The symbolic ideal of the mighty worker-aristocrat. I half expected to see a briefcase, an iphone, a tablet or jogging bottoms as part of the centaur’s accoutrement, but the set-up was generalised – classical, nothing too demanding, in bronze, with a neutral finish matched only by the imperviousness of the endless straight edges of the surrounding office towers.
In the sun lounge on the thirtieth floor of Clifford Chance, the view through the plate glass windows over the Isle of Dogs was aeroplane high. Sun streamed into seating areas and small side rooms connected by vastly long corridors in a space designed for business gatherings. A grand piano, a dining room with crystal decanters, a kitchen at the centre of the floor where staff were beginning to prepare the canapés for this evening’s function; this was the setting for a stately retrospective of Gary Wragg’s paintings. His large works take the viewer round all four sides of the building processionally. The sheer square footage at play has allowed Wragg to get a large number of his huge paintings together in one space. We get a sense of his development, and the changes his work has gone through.
The paintings are abstract-expressionist and driven by a desire to use gesture and colour to open up a new space within each one. Sometimes this new space seems to take on a sense of place. Some of the paintings appear built on similar principles to de Kooning’s 1956 painting Easter Monday in the Met in New York, an urban abstract landscape complete with windswept newspaper, painted when de Kooning was still an urbanite who wandered alone through the city streets. Some of Wragg’s paintings express something of the texture of urban existence. The Snake and Crane I (1987-89) has found its own contingent hard-won structure and contains something of the surprise and sense of juxtaposition that can be seen in the corresponding aerial overview through the windows. The painting is dark and brooding and conveys the sensation of moving through a city at night. It would be interesting to compare it to the almost contemporaneous urban landscape / portrait by Basquiat Untitled (Skull) (1984). Wragg’s painting would undoubtedly seem more lyrical, less blunt than the Basquiat, but also more romantic, more elusive, more like Turner.
The problem, the crisis, the urgency of Wragg’s work emanate directly from his drawing. The importance of drawing to him is inaugurated by a 1976 charcoal on canvas Pirate. In it, various figurative and landscape motifs are hinted at but never resolved. Like early Pollock, the drawing points out of representation toward oceanic all-overness. The difficult negotiation between the general and the specific here is not necessarily resolved. It sets the tone for the rest of the show, where we can never be sure what it is we are looking at. Though it is clear that the paintings are meant to be apprehended literally as tableaux of marks, shapes and colours, we still can’t help imagining contexts, motifs, encounters and relationships within the compositions and can’t help looking for answers as to how the paintings have come about. Sometimes place names are referenced in the titles. At other times the paintings seem like a mixture of both internal and external architecture, as in Abandonment and Doubt (2006-9). Though we may look for clues as to how the paintings are configured, we’re unable to pull away and attach particular meanings to any of the components. The paintings are sticky: once you’re absorbed, its hard to extract yourself.
English painting often likes to put its feelings into objects and treat them as elements within a still life. Howard Hodgkin for example, is able to twist the brush into a hot gesture, but the placing of gesture within the composition is balanced more coldly. His paintings have a detachment, as though a moment’s emotional imprint has been placed under glass. In contrast it’s harder to get any distance from a Wragg. They fill the viewer’s visual field both optically and physically. They demand full submersion and create an immersive field. Because of this they can never fully master themselves, as to master the painting would entail stepping out of it and Wragg wants to keep us on the inside. The paintings attempt to pull themselves together out of the chaos of pure immediate sensation, and Wragg often achieves this in the handling of the paint, which is totally involved and boundlessly energetic. The problem for him is finding the right armature for his gestures. What is the function of drawing in his work?
When he draws on his canvases, is he drawing in actual space, or virtual space? Is he 1-1 literal, or shifting scale and creating illusions? Is he describing a thing or creating a process? Are the forms his own or found elsewhere? If they are found elsewhere, are they from nature, from the collective unconscious, from the urban landscape? Or from the work of historic painters, or the works of other abstract painting colleagues in London? Wragg seems to want a similar quality to that found in the paintings of Gillian Ayres or the work of the sculptor Phyllida Barlow, where an ugly brutal literalness gives way to a paradoxical delicacy. At times the paintings can feel bootsy and masculine, emphasised by the striated grooves he often draws into the thick paint with a plasterer’s tool, making of the painting a pitched battleground. At other times he seems to want a fragrant bouquet of colours that open out and bloom in a sweet array. Underpinning all this is the underlying problem of drawing, of structure and composition. How to find a composition, how to organise the raw material? Should the initial drawing bend itself to accommodate the new structures thrown up by the painting, to eventually simply be painted out, to let the layers of paint speak for themselves? Or should the painting be divided up, with drawing creating boundaries between elements, in order to impose a structural rigour around which the gestures can organise themselves?
The kinds of meanings involved in conceptual or symbolic art are entirely absent here. What we’re involved with are more fundamental conditions of being – orientation, direction, velocity and energy. It would be tempting to describe the process that goes into making Wragg’s paintings as performative, were it not for the fact that the emphasis is so entirely upon the painting as a finished product, as an object that lives beyond the fact of its maker’s existence. What is impressive (or brave, or gruelling depending on your taste) about Wragg’s work is his refusal to pin anything down and to let all the elements remain as open as possible, for as long as possible. Wragg has truly turned painting into a trip into the unknown, and it is the extraordinary energy that is required to undertake such a mission that makes the whole show irresistible. Wragg has let himself go all out to explore what is possible for him within the vortex of abstract expressionist action painting. Yet despite early success he occupies a surprisingly marginal position within the London art world. Despite the obvious enjoyment and enthusiasm the paintings elicit, they remain ignored and out of fashion. Why?
Part of the reason perhaps is that in their reliance on the gesture, the paintings could be associated with an era where paintings were created out of a masculine will to power. He likes the viewer to feel the heft, weight and struggle of his intentions. Even when he prints paint onto the surface using bubble wrap one can still feel the physicality of the artist bearing down onto the painting. This is a characteristic of painting of the nineteen-fifties, before Warhol or Cage amongst others liberated art from being the product of a individual, isolated, heroic will. In only a couple of paintings in the show, such as Vyner Street (2005) or Partita (2002) does Wragg let the poured paint find its own form independently of his hand. Here, he comes close to the relatively non-interventionist abstract painting of Polke or Richter, where process, either by pooling chemicals, or effacing all the marks of the hand with a squeegee, serves to efface the will or ego of the artist, allowing the painting to becoming effervescent and veiled. Wragg’s experiments in this vein are uncharacteristic though. There is something powerful about the way Wragg refuses to let go, refuses to give up possession of his motifs. Yet paradoxically the strongly willed nature of Wragg’s paintings is at odds with their open-ended character. They don’t give way to calculation, perfection or resolution and in this can seem frustrating. The hard wrought gestures however begin to make sense when you understand their struggle, despite appearances, is in fact towards a lightness of being, and forms that at first might seem rasping actually give way to a dense pleasure in sensuous immediacy. They seem to embody what Maurice Denis once advised Matisse: “You should resign yourself to the fact that everything cannot be intelligible. Give up the idea of rebuilding a new art by means of reason alone. Put your trust in sensibility, in instinct.” (1)
The most pervasive influence that I sensed throughout the work in the show was Bonnard, in the often rich, dense and highly pitched colours that offer oases of intensity and pleasure within a landscape that has become pure field. More recent works from the noughties are thinner in their texture and the drawing becomes more elastic; the grey triangle to the left of centre in Webzones @ Vyner Street (2005) is one of the most effortless moments in the show. Similarly the paintings on black grounds allow Wragg to make simpler, bolder forms. In Bending Zones and Shifting Accents (Magician’s Hand II) (2005-6) the red swooping oil stick leaps from the surface of the painting like a firework, a crazy comet. Ultimately Wragg’s paintings begin to work on you when you accept the disorientation and confusion and liminal uncertainty of their structures and give yourself over to the sheer exuberance and elation with which the paintings have been made. You have to accept their immediacy and understand that though they are static objects they exist within the moment. Within the neutral perfection and efficiency of the surrounding corporate environment, Wragg’s paintings are ecstatic anomalies. He presents us with something that is a challenge to understanding. The paintings are hard to assimilate and undoubtedly would change within different contexts. To appreciate one completely, you would have to live with it and devote a whole wall to it. Then the painting could just be, like birdsong, or the roar of traffic.
(1) Quoted in T.J.Clark “Madame Matisse’s Hat”, London Review of Books ,Vol.30 no.16,14 August 2008
The exhibition celebrates the publication of Constant Within The Change: Gary Wragg: Five Decades of Paintings: A Comprehensive Catalogue by John Sansom & Company. Two volumes in slipcase, each volume 240 pages, 280 x 280 mm. Edited by Sam Cornish, texts by Hilary Spurling, Matthew Collings, Terence Maloon, Sam Cornish and Stefanie Sachsenmaier.
Exhibition open until the 2nd of May by appointment only – contact [email protected] / 020 7006 5384. Clifford Chance, 10 Upper Bank Street, Canary Wharf
More information at www.garywraggstudio.co.uk