Viewing the show of Bridget Riley’s latest works at the Sunley Room, the National Gallery, has been a real treat. It seems always apt that her work is shown here, at the gallery where the genuine paintings of old masters like Seurat, Mantegna and Raphael, whom she admired, are exhibited. I have always been quite interested in optic art, the way simple geometry and combination of colours can ripple one’s mind. My favourite piece from the range of works shown in the National Gallery’s exhibition is ‘Arcadia’, last seen at the Paris retrospective exhibition in 2008. The combination as well as the subtle differences in the alignment of green, blue, white, terracotta and pink curves, resemble a feast of colours and lines. The white or the blank spaces in between the chunky curves are especially engaging, as if the spaces were a glimpse of bare flesh underneath a face painted over with cosmetics.
The black and white wall-length piece, ‘Composition with Circles’, resembles a million tennis balls dancing about. Some of the circles overlap with each other and some not, which seem to question us as to what we see and what we can make of the painting. What are the circles? Air bubbles? Tennis balls? Car wheels? Her work reminds me of the minimalist style of Agnes Martin, an American painter, whose lines, grids and pastel shades have an almost spiritual quality to them, and reflect an interest in Taoist philosophy (for her inspiration and original approach to art, click the following: an interview with Agnes Martin). In her nineties, she was said not to have read a newspaper for the last 50 years.
The other painting, ‘Red with Red’, strikes me as the most vivid and passionate, and it makes me smile to think what art can do to people. Celebrating her 80th birthday this year, Riley’s work is full of an unmistakable youthful glow and passion. The entire canvas is painted over with red, blue and terracotta, as if it were saying, ‘look at me, look at me.’
Riley’s highly graphic, playful and distilled works are a delight for the eyes, and fascinating to review how they have assimilated influences of post-impressionist artists like Seurat, known for his jovial dot painting ‘A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande-Jatte’. It teases the viewer’s mind with such potency. I enjoyed them because despite the abstractness of the shapes and forms, there is such clarity in the use of primary colours and patterns, and this unspeakable, very visual sense of clarity even seems to hint at the unnecessary clutter or fuss in language, photography or realist art. If you are interested in her work, check out what she has to say about the physical experience of her art at her BBC Four’s audio interview.
Bridget Riley paintings and related works at the National Gallery, London, from now until 22 May 2011.