Review: Bridget Riley exhibits a technicolour triumph

This article was originally published here on _Shift London

Decked upon the white walls of London’s Hayward Gallery, the namesake Bridget Riley exhibition becomes a vibrant portal into history, as you step inside. Much like a warped time-travel tunnel or puzzling maze, the paintings on each wall are twisted, encapsulating constructs. Art infused with perplexity.

At 88, the painter has truly mastered shape, and in her third Hayward exhibition it’s clear how. A supply of emulsion paint and steady hands are the basis of her work, but the real rocket fuel comes from decades gone by. London-born and sixties-inspired, Riley reacted to the youthful hope of the era. Later paintings embody the same positive energy; captured in whirling colours and sensory chaos. 

Director of Hayward Gallery, Ralph Rugoff, describes it as: “an exhibition that offers visitors an unparalleled opportunity to experience works from the full span of her brilliant career.” 

Installation view of Bridget Riley at Hayward Gallery 2019 © Bridget Riley 2019 Photo: Stephen White & Co.

This event is the largest and most comprehensive to date, formed in conjunction with Riley herself. It takes us on a psychedelic trip through a series of pattern-laden canvasses, pushing illusion to its extreme – and with striking success. We see geometric artwork given the precise skill and shock-factor that was once reserved for Old Masters. 

Riley’s obscurity brings a similar excitement to standing before wavy mirrors at the funfair; oddly satisfying but mildly unsettling. Take Aria (2012) with its behemoth vertical stripes that skyrocket in contrasting hues. To look up is to feel a sense of vulnerability, as though you are shrunk to minute proportion. Such philosophical mind-bending is the paragon behind each painting, and just why Riley is so coveted by children and critics alike. 

Considered a retrospective, the event chronicles Riley’s work through shapeshifting curation: room transitions run smoothly from stripes to curves. While the exhibition itself follows a linear evolution, the paintings are anything but. Monochrome swirls, stripes, and eye-boggling distortions make up the seven decades of artwork on show. 

“Her paintings transform the act of seeing into a festive occasion, something at once riveting and revelatory,” says Rugoff.

Lines look tangible: squeezed, morphed, stretched, as one passes through the small rooms of the gallery wing into larger and more expansive spaces. Add colour and the outcome is a rich, sensory spectacular. Awe-imposed silence lingers in the air throughout.

Bridget Riley Movement in Squares, 1961 Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London. © Bridget Riley 2019. All rights reserved.

Stepping away from unruly paint splatters, Riley refreshes the look of abstract art – sharpening its edges, quite literally. In this feat of geometry, Bridget Riley has rebirthed mathematics. A rare, if scorned, feature in modern art. Shapes could be thought to suppress artistic freedom – but Riley thinks otherwise. 

Rhombuses turn to circles, into increasingly thin stripes; the work so enthralled with movement that it seems to dance on the walls. A colourful choreography that leads onto black and white deception. Paintings like Movement in Squares (1961) and Blaze 1 (1962) demonstrate the power of tonal simplicity.  

Best described as Op Art, the pieces revel in strange dimension. In High Sky (1991) green nature tones create a kind of illusional kaleidoscope. Blocked colours that make you question your own grey matter. 

Be it through sheer scale or saturated shades of tangerine orange then blue, there is little denying Riley’s talent in causing impact. She draws a maximalist reaction from seemingly minimalist designs. Each wall in the Hayward Gallery makes for a strong visual arrest.

Bridget Riley, Aria, 2012 © Bridget Riley 2019. All rights reserved.

“Engaging every viewer in new acts of discovery, her work is not just vision-enhancing but life-enhancing. These are paintings that make you feel more alive as they reaffirm the link between seeing and thinking,” continues Rugoff.

Pieces from the recent Made for Measure collection, in particular, are an ode to perspective. They seem to bounce between animated and static states. Distance provides the trickery of movement; disc shapes spinning like bike wheels on a wall. Up close, though, the paint is perfectly coiled into solid blocks. 

Director-general of the National Galleries of Scotland, Sir John Leighton, who has previously exhibited Riley, believes: “[she] counts as one of the most original and significant artists of our time. We are delighted her work will continue to amaze.”

And amaze it certainly does: _shift declares Bridget Riley a vivid labyrinth that you should all be getting lost in this winter. 

Bridget Riley will run until January 26 2020, at the Hayward Gallery, Southbank Centre, SE1 8XX. Find more information here.

Header image: BRIDGET RILEY HIGH SKY, 1991 © BRIDGET RILEY 2019. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. ALL IMAGES COURTESY OF SOUTHBANK CENTRE.

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