Text: Jay McCauley Bowstead 2013
Sparkling, luminescent rhomboid reflections, systematised impressionism, deconstructed pointillism. Like atoms in crystalline formation melting into liquid they seem to swim – the lights of the city reflected on a skin of water – phthalo-green, oxide of chrome, raw sienna, then ochre, tints of scarlet and a litany of intense, transcendent blues: cobalt, cerulean, Prussian … bright and sombre hues, tertiary colours, tints and neutrals. The painting is Nataraja (1993) by Bridget Riley.
Bridget Riley’s paintings from the late 1960s onwards often seem to evoke the sea, most obviously in her frequent use of curvilinear motifs, but more importantly, in the effects of light and colour which she so meticulously constructs. In Coloured Greys 3 of 1972 one simultaneously has the impression of depth and of surface. The qualities of colour-tone are so exquisitely subtle in their transition from neutral-blue to grey-green to warm-grey, that the change is scarcely perceptible, giving one at first only the impression of shadowy movement.
Riley’s works ostensibly possess a certain distance, a coolness, in their scrupulous precision. But there is an energy and dynamism to her painting which beneath its taut surface is endowed with a virile power. Unlike many of the artists she admires and with whom she shares an affinity – Klee, Cezanne, Matisse, and Monet – she rejects painterly technique, the evidence of the hand and brush that so obviously connect the viewer to the artist. Whereas these painters express an immediacy in their use of mark, stroke, and gesture, Riley’s works communicate their potency via tense composition, chromatic relationships that seem ready to explode or collapse and formal play creating undulating, swimming canvases. To describe Riley’s work as oceanic might at first glance seem counter-intuitive, diametrically opposed to the tricksy virtuosity of Turner’s more famously pelagic oeuvre. But while Turner’s immersive, elemental atmosphere is informed by an essentially Romantic sensibility, Riley evokes the natural world in a more 20th century mode: dynamic molecular structures and photons in flight. Accordingly, paintings such as Cateract (1967) and Entice (1974) compel not through immersion in a maritime scene, but instead, submerge us in the sea itself revealing the currents and forces that lie beneath its glittering surface.
The sea is a perfect object of contemplation for an abstract painter almost an abstract medium in itself, resistant to sign or motif. For this reason, the effort of representing the ocean is expended in capturing its movement, its opaque depth, reflective skin, and translucent glow. And while Riley’s work doesn’t represent nature, in the conventional pictorial sense, its presence is clearly felt in her treatment of colour, tone and plasticity of form. This sensitivity to landscape is evident in the vivid and thoughtful descriptions which characterise Riley’s own reflections on her life and work:
‘I spent most of my childhood in Cornwall … In many ways there wasn’t much to do, except walking on the cliffs and looking at the seas, the skies all around … although one may go the same way, it never looks the same. If you walk with the sun behind you all the colours are fully saturated the sky is solid blue’ (Riley 1999: 44)
In Evoë (2003) animated waves of turquoise-green lap against tints of pink- violet, and ultramarine. Traveling rhythmically forward and back, a sinuous geometry of tessellating forms arranges itself in a dynamic play of light and colour. It is a work that transports me away from London’s sombre skies to a distant coast, the translucent sea reflecting a brilliant cerulean sky. More precisely, the painting replicates the feeling of freedom such a scene would create: analytical responses giving way to emotional and instinctive ones as if floating in buoyant water. Riley’s ability to stimulate intense sensory effects is integral to the power of her painting in which affective, aesthetic and formal elements are inextricably linked. As she describes herself:
‘My Paintings are, of course, concerned with generating visual sensations, but certainly not to the exclusion of emotion. One of my aims is that these two responses shall be experienced as one and the same.’ (Riley 1999: 79)
Certain works of art as divergent as the jewel-like stained glass in Sainte Chapelle, Monet’s paintings of Giverny, and Riley’s pulsating canvases provoke in their intense chromatic effects an overwhelmingly emotional response. This feeling of transcendence through art is one I associate most strongly with Paris and its wonderful galleries of late 19th Century and early 20th Century painting. For me, the most precise artistic comparison for the experience of viewing Riley’s work is found in Monet whose paintings often possess a similarly aquatic quality. Walking through Riley’s 2003 retrospective at the Tate, I was reminded of the large paintings of Monet’s garden exhibited at the Orangerie, whose fog of brushstrokes; blue, viridian, violet and magenta capture an aqueous, amphibious world. As with his huge curved canvases, Riley’s paintings seemed capable of swallowing me whole and transporting me elsewhere.
This notion of being overwhelmed by a superior force is my ideal of artistic appreciation, but in my desire for transcendence and catharsis I am at odds with a more Brechtian conception of art which privileges emotional distance as a prerequisite for intellectual engagement. I would argue, however, that this compartmentalisation of experience is problematic, implying that we can somehow absent our subjective selves from the experience of viewing a work of art. Worse, it seems to involve a denial of what it is to be fully human and to experience the full gamut of emotions. Why, after all, should an emotional response preclude an intellectual one?
In fact, the dynamic effects of Riley’s paintings exist within the context of a precise, highly informed, and even academic approach, their transporting effects the result of assiduous formal experimentation. In this way, it is possible to appreciate Riley’s work both analytically and instinctively: Her work is at once a meditation upon qualities of light, sea and landscape and a response to the history of modernist painting as practiced by Seurat, Cezanne, Matisse and the American abstract expressionists. Indeed, so much of the history of painting, is an attempt to capture light and colour – refracted particles of air and water – and through this process to reflect something of the transcendence of the natural world.
The watery nature of Riley’s work seems to have received little attention but it hides very much in plain sight, her titles including Reef, Sea Cloud, Reflection, and Lagoon. If Riley’s sensibility was coloured by her childhood by the sea, I wonder if my own aesthetic feelings have a similar basis. I have a vivid memory of standing on one of the top floors of Eastham College where my Father taught, an amazing pink and turquoise sunset glowing over East London refracted in the dense particulate-laden air.
Reading Kant’s Critique of Judgement as a preparation for writing this piece, it struck me that my sense of aesthetics is based almost exclusively on a physical and emotional response to the world around me. As he suggests:
‘Beauty has purport and significance only for human beings, i.e. for beings at once animal and rational (but not merely for them as rational beings—as spirits for example—but only for them as both animal and rational)’ (Kant trans. Meredith 2007: 41)
It’s a statement that rings true; we feel beauty when we see it, not merely as an intellectual or cultural response but as a visceral emotion. But unlike Kant I’m unable to delineate the sublime, the transcendent, or the beautiful with any empirical confidence. Nor am I able to describe where such phenomena would lie, whether in my cognition, or in a quality inherent to the object of beauty. Nevertheless, there is something particular to the quality of light and colour in certain spaces and works of art that provides such an intense sensory experience that it transports me. To stand before one of Bridget Riley’s paintings is to allow oneself to be swept away, submerged in the aqueous nature of her curvilinear forms, dancing liquid hues, and sparkling vibrating geometry.
Bridget Riley, The Eye’s Mind: Collected Writings 1965-1999 (Edited Robert Kudielka), Thames and Hudson, 1999, London.
Immanuel Kant, Translated By James Creed Meredith, Oxford University Press, 2007, Oxford.