Friday 22 October 2010

Bridget Riley


Southampton City Art Gallery, 17th September - 5th December.

Bridget Riley's retrospective exhibition has been on the road. Over the past year or so the collection has been shown in Liverpool, Birmingham and Norwich. Now it's at Southampton City Art Gallery, from 17th September to 5th December.

Those waves in my linocut (in the post below) remind me of Bridget Riley's famous black and white striped canvases from the 60s. Her pieces were instantly successful and engaging and entered the imagery of Swinging London. People respond to them in different ways, and sometimes have difficulty viewing them as pieces of art. They often seem more like optical illusions and colour theory, tricking the eye and creating movement. I find these perfectly valid and satisfying in an exhibition, which is why I'm glad to have seen the show both in Birmingham and Southampton.

The exhibition shows three or four rough periods of Riley's work, in chronological order. First comes the early monochrome precision and then the shimmering colour palettes ("June" almost invokes an actual scene). The final section is two huge canvases from recent years, combining surprising colours and comparing straight lines and curves, always with razor-sharp edges.

The Birmingham show was all in one room, to Southampton's three, which separate the time periods rather ruthlessly, even if the chronological flow is intended. However, the third room, isolating the two largest pieces, opposite each other, provided the best venue to give the work time (I'm considering a dissertation on the importance of a good gallery bench for the public appreciation of art). They could be on a boardroom wall, but the nuances of colour and the positioning of curves and verticals seem too specific.

This makes the show sound like a scientific treatise in optical theory. I'm content to enjoy that aspect, but it is really a riot for the eyes (particularly the second room). The meditative aspect is brought out in the video at the end of the exhibition. David Thompson's 1979 film shows Riley at work with numerous assistants, carefully adding lines and placing shapes (and I wish I was one of them); combined with lingering shots of water and branches; and clever filming that replicates the movement of the eye over the paintings.

If there's a progression over-all, I'd like to say that Riley loosened up, but a quick look back at the start shows that the playful streak has been present from the start. Every stage is dazzlingly clever and literally dazzling.

I was in the Art Gallery at noon and had forgotten about the clock tower's chimes. The melody is "St Anne", the most common tune for "O God Our Help In Ages Past", written by Isaac Watts, born in Southampton in 1674 and celebrated in Watts Park, over the road from the Civic Centre. I love that connection and trail of associations - which I needed my mother to unscramble.

No comments: