This week, I finally got round to seeing the Bridget Riley exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery. A couple of friends had been telling me how great the show was, and the critics had been raving about it, so I knew I had to catch it before it closes (Sunday 22nd September), and moves to the Hayward Gallery in London for its second leg.
Riley was a key figure in the Op Art movement, which developed in the 1960s and used abstract patterns and geometric shapes to create optical illusions in art. You can see that straight away, with Cataract 3, in Room 1. The whole painting is pulsating and vibrating with energy, in a way that makes you want to reach out and check that the canvas itself isn’t undulating. It’s a dizzying experience and quite a shock to the system.
Some of Riley’s most famous works are the black and white pieces (Room 2), which seem, paradoxically, to be alive with colour. As your eyes scan the canvas, it flickers with pink and green, like looking at a TV screen when the channel isn’t tuned in, the visual equivalent of white noise.
I was familiar with the concept of Riley’s work and was vaguely interested in seeing it, but hadn’t been prepared for just how convincing it is when experienced in person. As the exhibition continued, I realised I had expected it to be fairly simplistic and one-note, but her work is a much more in-depth exploration of perception and sensation. It shows us how what we see is deeply connected to how we feel, not just emotionally, but physically as well.
As your body moves closer to and further away from the paintings, or your eyes refocus as they try to figure out the mechanics of the brushstrokes, what you see shifts and morphs. It made me want to take off my glasses and lie down, to let the colours wash over me, the paintings becoming hallucinogenics and bringing a kind of playful blurring to the gallery space. It’s not surprising that Op Art was born in the 1960s.
My favourite room was at the heart of the exhibition, and displayed a number of Riley’s brightly-coloured monumental striped canvases. The way the pairings of colours create different effects, and can trick the eye, made me wonder how colour really works. In Paean (1973), stripes of red, white, blue and green seem to create flashes of pink. Riley’s work must be underpinned by a proper understanding of the physics of colour theory, and the fascinating room packed full of her sketches and studies show how meticulously worked out each composition is.
In 2017, Riley said that ‘the movement is created by looking’, which to me, is the key to her work. It suggests that it is the viewer, as a participant, who plays a pivotal role in ‘activating’ the compositions. As we move around the paintings and allow our eyes to drift over them, we help to bring them to life. It’s an experience everyone will react to differently, but one I would recommend trying.