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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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