Home > Writing Portfolio > Review – Bridget Riley (National Galleries Scotland)

Posted by: Emilie | AUG-15-2019

Videogames, generally, are not good to look at. As they strive for realism, they fall flat of even the basics of what makes a photo compelling. When they try to signal they are a bit more artsy, at worse they look like a photoshop filter gone awry, at best the stylishness, parcelled off from the rest of the game’s elements as “visuals,” feels like too much of a self-satisfied acknowledgement that videogames can look “pretty,” “nice,” and stops there. I end up thinking the character designs, or effects, or scenery look nice as elements, but the visual effect as a whole is still oriented towards the rote dragging of the player through systems and mechanics that defines most videogames. My attention is most often tracking the character or cursor in the middle of the screen, with no compositional relationship to whatever else is present. Rarely does a game give me the generosity of visual interest and pleasure as, for example, a painting.

Op Art sometimes gets a bad rap, seen as too commercial or gimmicky on account of becoming almost instantly “on trend” following the MoMA’s The Responsive Eye exhibition in 1965. Bridget Riley was the emerging star of this show, and the innovations of her work quickly filtered down into fashionable fabric prints and magic eye books. It’s easy to write her off as one of the indiscretions of the modern art canon, an example of a time when museum institutions were too swept up in the buzz and popularity surrounding an artists’ work than holding the line of “serious art.” It is easy to write off these paintings as formulaic. Samey. Decorative.

Until, in my opinion, you encounter one of Bridget Riley’s paintings in person. Maybe a smaller, more subdued, or less precise version could be acceptable as hotel or office art, but many of the paintings gathered at the National Gallery of Scotland’s retrospective of her work are simultaneously too generous and combative to function as background noise. Unlike some male abstractionists, Riley is comfortable sitting with “stripes,” with “pattern,” rather than hand-wringing over their proximity to women’s fashion and turning the concept into some affectatious action verb. As demonstrated by a room filled with studies and colour tests, her rigour in exploring each new idea and any resulting permutations is what makes her work so strong.

What is the effect of looking at her paintings? Her early black and white works, for which she is most famous, in small reproductions typically look like demonstrations of visual irregularities, things which could equally be a diagram in a modern art history book or a science book. In person, large scale, they skim the edges of your sight if you stand close, making you hyper-aware of your peripheral vision. The centre of your vision pulses or squirms or dissolves into static, destabilizing the reliability of your own perception. These paintings push the eye around, challenge it, dissect it. A unique element of this retrospective is a reconstruction of a sculptural device Riley experimented with allowing a painting to completely surround the viewer, though you can get just as strong of an effect on the field of vision by simply standing in front of many of the flat canvases.

Gradually, first with slight shades and tints in the white and black, but then fully embracing a broader palette than just about any abstract expressionist (excluding, of course, Elaine DeKooning, Joan Mitchell, Helen Frankenthaler..) colour re-enters Riley’s work, returning from the first room which features her early studies of impressionist, pointillist and fauvist work. While the black and white works are both curious and provocative, almost like completely alien creatures trying to understand and test the boundaries of human vision, the works which use colour feel generous, using Riley’s systematic approach to generate deep pleasure. These paintings are as reactive as videogames, the system of rules they allow for play within are the physics of the human eye. So, in my opinion, the comparison is fair, where are the pleasurable videogames? Games that focus on the visual potential of the screen and digital space, and reward or even require careful, deep looking? Examples like Catacombs of Solaris or A Cosmic Forest seem like almost too-obvious analogies to Bridget Riley’s work, but they do fit these characteristics, as do some flatgames and games like Dreamfeel’s Curtain. To me, these works foreground visual discovery and joy in a way that can be dizzying, disorienting, and have nothing to do with simply determining what “style” to apply to a game’s elements, whether that be hyperrealistic, cel-shaded, or whatever.

Of course, the other thing that stuck out to me about how the exhibition was organized was its focus on the work behind the “work.” It did not just appear in the focused recurrence of several visual patterns and themes throughout the exhibition's chronology, or the first and last rooms of the exhibition, where the influence of pointillism and fauvism on her lifelong practice are highlighted, and examples from her art school days are showcased. An entire room of mock-ups, drafts and colour tests, grouped to demonstrate how her vision for series of paintings evolved over time, demonstrates both the deep thought and precise draftswork that went into any of the paintings in the exhibit, which are so fine and so precise, it’s easy to forget that a process that went into them.

Riley outsourced the actual production of her canvases sometimes, now artists like Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons do it as a matter of fact. Riley also returns to dot paintings at the end of the exhibition, as her long career continues into the present. These dots differ so obviously from Hirst’s spots, which use the stale appeal of “randomness” in the same way lottery tickets and loot boxes are meaningless or frustrating to most people but compulsive to enough of a certain portion of the population to pay the bills, primarily because of Riley’s process.

The point of this deliberation, and the amount of thought and practice behind it, is not to discard every past attempt and arrive at the single, perfect configuration of dots, though the play these dots have with the eye is obviously much more clear and skilfully deployed. Instead the point is the building, and reiteration, working through and exhausting an idea of what “works,” which, maybe sounds old-fashioned, but is the most basic form of aesthetic inquiry, and also a hard goal to just sit with. Not visuals as a solution to arrive at, but the entire point, from end to end.

After lingering in the exhibition for a while, I felt exhausted too. I think we take for granted how much art that only speaks to the wandering brain and eyes of the modernist gallery space can demand. In short, I would recommend going to the Bridget Riley exhibition at National Galleries Scotland in Edinburgh to see some great interactive art.