[Until 22nd September]
Scotland’s largest ever Bridget Riley exhibition is this year’s Edinburgh summer blockbuster at the Scottish National Gallery. Fifty major paintings and studies on paper from international public and private collections occupy two levels of the Royal Scottish Academy building. The artworks are organised into ten rooms highlighting themes from a career spanning seven decades.
Bridget Riley (b.1931, London) is one of the UK’s most successful living artists. Her artworks prompt a visceral, physical reaction, making them instantly accessible to many. Riley has constantly explored the experience of visual perception through the lens of Op Art and the mid-20th Century fascination for all things mind-altering.
This retrospective starts and ends with beginnings. When you enter the first room, there is familiarity in white walls and monumental canvases. Shin-high barriers protect these iconic paintings. Here, we reflect on Riley’s early fascination with the pointillist techniques of Georges Seurat. Daubs of different colours act to represent vibrant natural scenes that we recognise. Contrast, brightness and colour work together to make visual sense.
In Burn (1964), Deny (1967) and Cataract (1967), contrast and pattern gain a more heightened level and seem to dance before our eyes. A taste of what’s to come in the following rooms.
As you move from room to room, the introductory texts – stencilled directly onto the walls – act as optical palette cleansers. They offer a moment to reset your eyes before entering the next stunning realm of this visual playground. Her early abstract paintings gained attention when, in 1962, the Arts Council purchased Movement in Squares (1961)
Each room charts a pivot in Riley’s exploration of visual perception: black and white; coloured greys; curves; stripes; a shift beyond the canvas to mural; a 3d installation that took her studies in perception to the extreme.
In another room, we get a rare opportunity to discover close-up glimpses into the methods behind her work. This room has no barriers to keep you from getting closer to view the pencilled notes, calculations, technical drawings and colour judgements. They are hung on the walls as worthy artworks in themselves and not typically laid flat into display cases. Here you see the extent of the work that goes into each finished piece. In fact, Riley uses assistants to execute the art to allow her time to work on fine-tuning the techniques and preparations needed.
Whilst Riley’s paintings on the upper level of the gallery float like dazzle ships on expansive white walls, downstairs there’s a more intimate experience. One that is not to be missed. Here we have an opportunity to see recent work. In Measure for Measure 36 (2019) painted discs in subtle tones appear to float and swap colour in perfect harmony.
In the final room, we get a rare glimpse of the early interests and practices of Riley’s art school drawings, early painting and studies. Many are shown in public for the first time.
Riley proves to us that art is an illusion. We can get lost in it and emerge altered, questioning our assumptions of what we see and know. What do we really believe if we can perceive shapes and colours emerging from the hidden?
Although visual perception can’t fully explain art, we know we are active in the creation of Riley’s artworks and can leave the gallery stimulated, and observe our environment with new eyes and an open mind.