Abstract Critical

Matthew Collings Talks to Gary Wragg

Written by Gary Wragg, Matthew Collings

Gary Wragg, Mask, 1976, charcoal, pastel, acrylic and Rohplex on canvas, 267 x 338cm

Gary Wragg, Mask, 1976, charcoal, pastel, acrylic and Rohplex on canvas, 267 x 338cm

Matthew Collings: The lack of  obvious headline significance in your paintings is a problem for an audience conditioned by contemporary art culture. How can you help the audience who have been told to look for a certain set of significant issues, and who are simply not used to taking it for granted that the sort of things which you are concerned with are worthwhile endeavours? How do you see your work in relation to current culture, to the art audience which has developed in the last twenty or twenty five years?

Gary Wragg: How I can help – and I say this with all great seriousness – is that one of the problems people have when they look at painting is that they are full up to the brim with notions of what painting is and what it should be, and meaning, and so on, and so on. And the answer is – and I think that this is what every individual should strive to do – is to empty out completely, let it all go and try not to have expectations of anything, but just to actually look, and look, and look. You might respond to it in a way that surprises you, because you let it in, because you are empty; but if you are full up it means you have resistance and you will keep it out, and you will be limited. If you are less limited you can go much further.

Gary Wragg, Morning Night, 1978, acrylic, pastel, charcoal and Rohplex on canvas, 178 x 503cm

Gary Wragg, Morning Night, 1978, acrylic, pastel, charcoal and Rohplex on canvas, 178 x 503cm

In our culture mass-production has for quite some time now meant that everything is evened out and seems to be the same – clothes, cars, banks, Tescos, wherever you go. Even our responses have become the same. But it is very presumptive to think that we are all the same. Of course we have many traits in common, but in fact we are unique and the over-riding reminder of this from all artists – all great artists – is that they have broken the rules, they’ve been an exception to the norm. Artists need this freedom to explore their reactions, to have responses that are true to themselves in the way they live their lives – this is where you can break out of current expectations.

MC: Can you be more specific about what people need to get your paintings? Not in terms of getting each individual one or seeing how they differ from one another, but rather what they need to get the whole thing of what you’re about?

GW: Well this was something Bryan Robertson was emphatic about – he said that the thing that always came back to him was that all the paintings need time, because they are slow to reveal themselves. This is always the case, because they are to do with layering. And this is not just about how they are made, but to do with how you actually see the paintings, when they are finished. Often Bryan didn’t like the paintings at first but over time he began to see what was actually there and then would change his mind. 

Gary Wragg, Electra, 1983, acrylic and mixed media on canvas, 244 x 290cm

Gary Wragg, Electra, 1983, acrylic and mixed media on canvas, 244 x 290cm

MC: You have spoken to me in the past about the paintings as sounding-boards, as records of intention and resolve….?

GW: That is indeed what they are. As I said, for me the art of painting is, in simple terms, about layering. Things are left so you can see through to different layers – you can see the history of the layers, which is actually showing the history of the painting. It shows what I have chosen – by what means I am not always sure – to leave; and what I’ve obliterated. The obliteration is as meaningful as the things which are left. It is a process of rejection, an intuitive process, you bring everything to it, your thoughts, what you know, and, a lot of time, what you don’t know. When you think about all the data you store from day one, when you are born – every day, every minute, when you’re awake, when you’re asleep – it is so gigantic that computers haven’t got a look-in! Painting is about absorbing and using all of this stuff – it all comes through.

MC: I wonder if I could ask you to do my job, and for a moment step outside a painting and objectively  describe how it holds together?

Gary Wragg, Chi XX, 1994-5, oil on canvas, 251 x 310 cm

Gary Wragg, Chi XX, 1994-5, oil on canvas, 251 x 310 cm

GW: Now you’re good at that…

MC: Well I’m not sure about that – I think I have a tendency to do it, which possibly closes down the richness of it, which is why I’m asking you to do it… I do it to calm myself down, but you probably have a different relationship to the work and you possibly want things to be more exciting? But OK. I would say my first impression of that painting is of an opposition between great openness and spread-outness, and then another movement going through the middle of these rather crusty vertical elements, which seem to have their own timing and be in their own world. And yet, enjoyably, they are in some way or other related to the other world of the spread-out, wider, looser elements. That is rather tenuous, but that is on the first impression – I imagine as I see it more, the whole painting will become much tighter for me. It is very glow-y at the moment and even as I’m talking now I’m seeing how coming through some of those mists and gauzy elements are smaller strokes going in different directions tiny horizontal squiggles countering broad vertical marks… But would anyone like what I’ve just described? I could be describing a pot-plant in the corner of a room, or light falling on a doner kebab!?

GW: Well, yes, you could be! But the priority when I’m making my painting is that it doesn’t have to be liked. It’s what must be done and that is all there is to it. This is what I do and I try to do it as best I can and to let it happen in a way that seems to be interesting to me – in a way that is fresh and somehow has relevance and a kick to it.

MC: Can you say something about how you go about making a painting? 

GW: The interesting thing is that I work on these paintings from every kind of angle, upside down, sideways, on the floor. I start on a hard-surface, on a screen; and then at some point – a really exciting stage – I stretch the painting up. I decide on the edges, stretch it up and then I’ve got this springy softness – this change from hardness to springy softness is very important. I can put the painting on the floor, I can turn it around, I can turn it upside-down – which you can’t do when it is on the screen. The result of doing that over the years is that really quite a lot of the paintings can be shown almost any way up – though this is not always the case. What is important in a lot of paintings is gravity, but as important is anti-gravity – so where you have heaviness you have lightness, where you have a right way up you also contradict it with a pull in the other direction, and so on – you feel like you are floating in space.

Gary Wragg, Louse Point Homage, 1997, oil on canvas, 206 x 170 cm

Gary Wragg, Louse Point Homage, 1997, oil on canvas, 206 x 170 cm

MC: In the painting I was describing there are strokes going in one direction, strokes going in another, big shapes, small shapes, all sort of configurations that seem almost unrelated to other configurations – but maybe they are related but in a way I hadn’t thought of?

GW: Well they have to be related otherwise the painting falls apart…

MC: That takes me up to my next question – when you talk about your work and about painting generally you are very generous about what could make a painting and what a painting could be about; but now you say there is a possibility of a painting falling apart. Are you saying that every work that ever gets shown by you is a resolved work in one way or another; or are there successes and failures?

GW: I think probably there are successes and failures – but I do have a rule, a really stringent rule: if a painting leaves studio, I stake my life by it, I really have to believe in that painting, that it is the best I can do the way I see it. I think they all achieve a resonance and enter a real arena. Before they get there they are just possibilities, maybes, a mess; after they enter that arena they are real, they are separate, they have their own life. You can almost make a mistake after that, it doesn’t matter. You know when it clicks, up here in your head, in your body, in your arms, your elbows. It is not like you have any big emotions or anything, but when you get something it goes ‘BOOM’!…  But it isn’t always dramatic, sometimes it is a neutral feeling – neutrality is very important.  

Gary Wragg, Eddie's Cafe, 2005, oil on canvas, 208 x 201 cm

Gary Wragg, Eddie’s Cafe, 2005, oil on canvas, 208 x 201 cm

MC: Yes, you often talk about neutrality. You raise this idea of a different sort of psychic space to the one we were all taught abstract painters are supposed to be in all the time. That is, absolutely at the top of the scale of passion, full of anger or sadness, where you often seem to suggest a state that is without passion?

GW: You have what you have – passion, anger, your emotions, you’re a human being for goodness sake, why not? But – and I think this is an important thing from Tai-Chi – is the ability to detach and to really empty out in a bodily way and in a mental way, as well. I’ve always found that a real input into the paintings.

MC: Do you mean that the paintings do not depict emotion?

GW: No, they do depict emotion – they are all about feelings or emotions; or rather perhaps they depict feelings more than emotions. Emotions are in definite categories like joy, anger or whatever – but feelings are something else, because feelings are incommunicable, people can’t identify them. But painting is a place where even unprecedented feelings can sometimes happen. In this way painting is like a net, it catches whatever happens but it happens on a level where you can’t always say exactly that this is happening or that is happening.

Gary Wragg, Rue Gambetta II, 2006-10, oil on canvas, 254 x 422 cm

Gary Wragg, Rue Gambetta II, 2006-10, oil on canvas, 254 x 422 cm

MC: Getting more directly back to the pictures – they seem in some ways to hover around the mannerisms of the 1950s.

GW: Do you mean in their vocabulary? I’ve thought about this a lot before, but when it comes to vocabulary the point is that you invent and re-invent the plastic notion of how you make a painting. By  understanding space and surface you can do different things with the same vocabulary. You’ve got to start at a starting point, and that is where you are; you’ve got to make headway with that vocabulary. In a sense one has to contribute to the vocabulary, you can’t repeat, but it’s in the way things are put together that the differences occur. That is why it all seems so exciting to me, because I can see what can still be done. It’s not like I’m going to say ‘no’ and pick-up something doesn’t belong to me, but I am very sensitive to the old and the new and what is vital in terms of the present day. In ten years time or twenty years time the present day vocabulary will be in the same situation – you’ve got to work your way through it; and I think the paintings do give something back…

MC: That explains something you’ve said to me before, when you say you are responding to life, how things look each and every day. There is a difference between that and the vocabulary – so there is the energy which comes from everyday experience which is unique to you and is different every day, and then there is a world of forms which has these magic names like Matisse, de Kooning, Picasso…

Gary Wragg, Le Cannet, 2007-13, oil on canvas, 211 x 168 cm

Gary Wragg, Le Cannet, 2007-13, oil on canvas, 211 x 168 cm

GW: Yes, but this is why it so important for me to get lost a lot, everyday, so I can discover little sensations and improvise and put something together and discover something of my own. Getting lost in what you are doing is sometimes the most revealing and rewarding thing – when I get in a real muddle I find exciting things. It is not always the obvious which is the best thing to do. It is really a process of discovery.

Every day I come here and I look at the paintings. The studio is a room where you move things about  as you need to. There is a logic to these moves – if one could take those moves and see how they connect over the years, minute by minute, day by day you’d see the logic in it. Paintings have to be moved around in a similar way; when you work on a painting it is like a room which you settle in, or perhaps a park or a tundra – whatever, it is a place where you settle your eye and your spirit and your mind, and your feeling.

Gary Wragg, Inflections 1-6, 2013, charcoal on canvas, 284 x 280 cm

Gary Wragg, Inflections 1-6, 2013, charcoal on canvas, 284 x 280 cm

MC: Do you think you are in the same world as everyone else, or do you find that the studio is in some sense an otherworldly experience?

GW: Good question. I am most definitely in the same world as everybody else, but the studio is not. The studio is well, I don’t know anywhere else like it, and I love being here, I spend all my time here, I even sleep here, I can’t wait to get here. But that is because of my experience of the world, of passing through the world, of going in the tube or the bus, walking, talking, looking at the floor or at the sky, whatever… Then you come here and you do things about it.

MC: Would you say that this is profoundly different now to thirty or thirty-five years ago or have you always felt like that?

GW: It’s always been the same.


Constant Within The Change: Gary Wragg: Five Decades of Paintings: A Comprehensive Catalogue, published in March 2014 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.

An exhibition celebrating the launch of Constant Within The Change is on at Clifford Chance until the 2nd of May. Viewing by appointment only. Contact [email protected] / 020 7006 5384. Clifford Chance, 10 Upper Bank Street, Canary Wharf. You can read Dan Coombs’ review of the exhibition here.

More information at www.garywraggstudio.co.uk




  1. Simon Bill said…

    I’ve come very late to this discussion – possibly too late. But, for what it’s now worth, I would like to add that I think one reason Gary Wragg is important now is that he’s a genuine improviser. He paints every time as if he’s forgotten how to do it. This accounts for the variable quality, and the terrific freshness of the successful ones. Also this variability can have surprising effects on your own taste. The ones I thought weren’t successful can look successful later on. It’s actual creativity.

  2. Sam said…

    To Evan, Robin,
    Morning Night was one of the first paintings when I think I really began to get Gary’s work, though it didn’t happen very quickly. It is still one of my favourites. It doesn’t need to be excused on grounds of age. The triptych type format is a dominant feature but not as overbearing as in the photographs (I haven’t seen it in a while, but the only ‘problem’ I had with it involved the yellow splashes of paint across the middle – which Gary has used to greater effect since). The best bit – much more importantly – is the right-hand side with its multiple layers put on top of each other. This is a very different type of layering to normally active in his painting – it reminded me of Braque’s great Studio pictures, though Gary is not a fan. I love the way it is so difficult to make the different elements make sense in relation to each other, yet it still remains forceful. From memory the contrast in mood between the flattened loops of the spiral, the shattered shape on the one hand and the quiet fading parallel lines on the right on the other was particularly exciting. It is almost a disappointment that there is nothing quite like this anywhere else in his work – though I imagine it was something made instinctively and would be difficult to keep fresh if too premeditated. The slit in the middle of the painting (almost literally a window) is also something. I don’t want to say much more as I would just be describing the jpeg.

    • Sam said…

      * From memory the contrast in mood between the flattened loops of the spiral and the shattered shape on the one hand and the quiet fading parallel lines on the right on the other was particularly exciting.

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        That is quite a prospect, and we might agree that a thing can reach some kind of facile wholeness far too easily, and that the reconcilliation of differences is healthy. Obviously you have the advantage in having seen the original, but from reproduction the drawing of the spiral looks just too isolated, uninfluenced by the other parts of the painting. But if what you are suggesting is real, and they do in some way work together, then, yes, it would be exciting. But maybe it is possible too that you make a fetish out of the parts being SO difficult to reconcile?

  3. Evan Steenson said…

    Robin, agree with you on the quality concerns, particularly “Morning Night.” The triptych that wasn’t? Would have been better as a series of three canvasses in my view. Rather extreme horizontality divided into three zones…was Wragg on about chronology and the passage of time? Perhaps I’m projecting again. In all fairness to Gary though, that beast is older than me.

  4. Patrick Jones said…

    Dear Terry,You have my feeling about layering to a tee,that is the time element doesnt work for me .Apparently Miro added black painted eyes to his extraordinary self portrait with stars in his eyes,30 years after the first work,which was already a masterpiece.That takes true mastery ,otherwise it looks like a bolt -on.Rothko and Bomberg couldnt use this approach either.

  5. Robin Greenwood said…

    Though I’m now on record as having been won over to Gary’s work, my doubts about the quality of some of it returns with this selection of images. Although I think “Rue Gambetta II” is very good, and has something original about the spaces in it and some measure of coherence, some of the other work here is in my opinion rather poor. Perhaps the worst is “Morning Night”. I know it’s an old painting, but how is that supposed to hold together? “Chi XX” also looks a crude, underworked idea. No amount of philosophy will carry that for me.

  6. Peter Stott said…

    Looks like a bomb went off in a Matisse painting.

  7. Patrick Jones said…

    Iam absolutely delighted to see Gary Wragg getting serious critical attention from several sources and hope this translates into real practical encouragement for him ,such as exciting exhibition invitations and sales to collectors who will sustain interest.He deserves all this through his persistence and quiet courage over 40 years of activety,going to the studio every day ,through thick and thin.Where I differ from him is in my having to make each painting a whole,unified experience.This doesnt allow the layering of activety he mentions,or indeed much reworking.Failures,which I have mentioned here before,are real and complete and all too frequent,like cooking pancakes.There is only one arbiter of success and that is the quality of the finished object.

    • Terry Ryall said…

      Patrick, I think this idea of layering is worth looking at closely, especially as Gary Wragg has singled it out as being of some importance in relation to his work. It seems to me that layering is not just a question of perhaps allowing first marks, passages of painting etc to remain visible and active in any sort of final synthesis. That would seem to fall comfortably within a casual way of painting whereby some initial features are retained and others modified or discarded completely as the work progresses. It, layering, seems much more like a positively structural device. Given the variety of Gary Wragg’s work it is not surprising that the sense of layering is strong in some works and far less so in others. In for instance ‘Eddies Cafe’ layering is used to such an extent that there appears to be several paintings existing on the same canvas. The large slightly off-centre rectangle partly obscures what seems to be the back-ground but also (I think largely due to my reading of the central dividing line within this rectangle as a horizon) takes the viewer way back beyond the plane of the back-ground by receding into its space. I wonder also if part of the attraction of layering as a device lies in the idea of evoking the passage of time through its capacity to retain and present in a very deliberate way the various stages of a work. I would add that I’m making these comments having only seen the J.Pegs. Perhaps I am taking too literal and physical a view of the idea of layering?

      • jenny meehan said…

        “I wonder also if part of the attraction of layering as a device lies in the idea of evoking the passage of time through its capacity to retain and present in a very deliberate way the various stages of a work.”

        This would be my take, personally.

      • Noela said…

        I imagine, (haven’t seen the paintings yet, hope to tomorrow) the layering is about getting in the studio , assessing the work, not being happy and attacking it with more paint. Sometimes it works , sometimes it doesn’t. It seems that Wragg does not have a final outcome in his head before he starts working.

  8. jenny meehan said…

    Fantastic interview! Really enjoyed. This part very helpful to me:
    “No, they do depict emotion – they are all about feelings or emotions; or rather perhaps they depict feelings more than emotions. Emotions are in definite categories like joy, anger or whatever – but feelings are something else, because feelings are incommunicable, people can’t identify them.”

    Susanne Langer is very interesting reading… her perspective of artwork as a way of bringing “form to feeling” not in a cathartic way but as a kind of self realisation.. a way of identifying what resonates poetically.

  9. Matthew Collings said…

    The painting I’m describing in this interview (which took place some years ago when GW had a studio in Vyner Street) is not one of the paintings illustrated here, as hopefully some readers may have suspected, the words don’t really fit anything here. It is a work called “Webzones @ Vyner Street,” 2005, and it can be found on this link: http://www.garywraggstudio.co.uk/2000-up-till-now-paintings/

    • Sam said…

      As illustrated in Dan Coombs’ review http://abstractcritical.com/article/constant-within-the-change-gary-wragg/

      Or can see image directly here: http://abstractcritical.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/Webzones-411×400.jpg

      One of Gary’s most reproduced paintings, but for me one of the most problematic in the show

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        As I mentioned in the Dan Coombs comments, I think it’s one of his best and most original works. Can you say why you think it’s problematic, and maybe point us at something you think works better?

      • Sam said…

        I v much like the dark complex of marks and space at the bottom, its colour particularly, but the rest feels to me somewhat filled it by the mesh, a little tame, without the urgency and risk of a lot of the other works, or their coherence (or rather its coherence, apart from the aforementioned bit at the bottom, fills a bit too easy, even complacent). The dahes at right angles to each other across the top seem to float on top of the mesh, rather than either merging with it, or being in exciting counterpoint to it. Just to pick egs illustrated on the site, I think Patrita and Step Ladder & Standing Man are better as coherent colour-spaces, and Bending Zones & Shifting Accents (Magician’s Hand II) is better for how much further he pushes himself. But really I prefer a lot of the large paintings in the show! I tried to knock it off the list!

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        (We are on the wrong article for this really) I originally thought Bending Zones was better than Webzones (they are obviously related paintings), certainly in reproduction, and it looked to be more fully worked, more involving, more of that networked background lost to some exciting foreground brushwork. But when I saw them for real I changed my mind and found Webzones the more spatial of the two. In fact I found Bending Zones flattening out in its “loading” across the picture plane, in a manner a little too familiar (Hofmann?), whilst Webzones just opened out more and more in a way I hadn’t encountered before. I find the open parts with their drawn lines and infilled colours scrubbed in and the weirdly random additions a positively different space to that of the dense dark area at the bottom, and I like that contrast/variety.

  10. Iain Robertson said…

    Really interesting interview, I have always felt and it is being re-confirmed all the time on reflection and through comparison with contemporaneous work that Gary Wragg is probably one of our best and still most exciting abstract painters. This insight into his process illustrates that, discovery of the new , surprise in what happens through application of material and openness to “Change” are central to his continued development.