The Sea

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.

ImageRiley’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)

The Sublime


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.

20s Modernism across a range of media and disciplines.

20s Modernism across a range of media and disciplines.

The PDF linked below was an attempt to create a genealogy of modernist design which accounted for the interconnected nature of various “modernisms” expressed across medium and discipline. I find it intriguing that the machine aesthetic, formalism and abstraction inflected fields as (ostensibly) different as industrial design, fashion, typography, scenography and architecture. It is also interesting to consider how Arts and Crafts, in many ways an anti-modern movement, sowed the seeds of radical modernism in its insistence on truth to materials and in its linking of social and progressive ideals, which in turn located the applied arts as a set of uniquely transformative media. As well as links and continuity there is contradiction and rupture, not least between more progressive modernist design and the more conservative application of some forms of Art Deco. This presentation was originally produced to illustrate my lecture on “Modernism in Design” at the Working Men’s College in Camden.

Modernist Design

Materials and Aesthetics are pretty core to most artworks, but sometimes these elements are relegated behind concept and subject. In this post I’m trying to think about why this might be and to define some of the less obvious ways in which visual aesthetics are important in fine art practice.

The open submission exhibition at The Whitechapel, The London Open, led me to think about the role and status of visual aesthetics in contemporary fine art. The exhibition was divided into two major spaces on the ground and first floor: the ground floor gallery featuring a range of installed film works, text, sound, installation and photographic works; while the first floor gallery featured predominantly sculpture, painting, objects and assemblages and image based works. However, while there were some interesting differences in media and form between the works exhibited in the two major spaces, what was much more notable were the stark differences in approach to material and aesthetics.

Whitechapel OpenWhitechapel Open

The curator’s notes suggested that the works in the first floor gallery had been grouped because the artists demonstrated interests in kitsch, folk and outsider art and, to an extent, these themes could be detected at least in some of the pieces. Much more obvious, and in my view more important, was that these artists engaged with the material and visual in an explicit way which could not be separated from the meaning and intention of their works. This was evident in pieces such as Zebra by Caroline Achaintre in which fibres had been woven into a tufted, carpet like, composition of intersecting lines; in the delicate pencil drawings of Mark Harris; in an installed animation by Shona Davies, Dave Monaghan and Jon Klein; and in the heavily textured paintings of Dale Carney. In all of these pieces, the evidence of the make process as well as use of colour, texture, composition and material interacted to create works with cogent visual identities. In the case of Davies, Monaghan and Klein’s macabre animation, for example, the choice of muted hues, hand made animated models and hand painted sets (the work was also displayed in a set) lent the work a poignancy and delicacy. The associations of animation with children’s television underscored the suicide narrative, adding a layer of complexity and dark humour to the piece. In this way, thematic, narrative and conceptual concerns were inextricably bound up in the materiality and form of the artistic work.

Whitechapel Open

In the text, installation, and video pieces of the ground floor gallery, aesthetics were much less explicitly prioritised as content of the work. Nevertheless, the aesthetic choices and values, of both artists and curators, could be detected. Whereas, the upstairs gallery had featured a rich variety of textures, colours and materials, here a palette of cool grey, white and black predominated. Videos were displayed on1990s matt black plastic monitors (shiny flat-screens would have hit the wrong note), slide machines clicked through images of the sky, a wall, apparently chosen to suggest at once the mundane and the profound. It struck me that the intended signifier for the anti-aesthetic aesthetic of these pieces was a kind of intellectual seriousness. It was as if in denying the allure of harmonising colour, the inviting tactility of texture, the expressive power of image making one could ascend to a realm of pure philosophical thought. This fine art Iconoclasm is one that I find particularly difficult, redolent as it is of Puritanism and a prioritisation of some kind of mysterious “content” which exists outside the form of the work.

There is certainly room in the art world for work which is meditative, idea based and not primarily concerned with the visual. But I would strongly argue that the communicative and associative power of aesthetics are important in framing even these works. Too often a failure to engage with visual aesthetics means falling back on a range of fine art clichés which not only risk alienating the viewer from the work, but also obscuring its core ideas

Menswear is an increasingly exciting area of design. Innovative up-and-coming designers and an expanding market share have combined to improve its status, alongside womenswear, as an important creative discipline. In this post I’m trying to describe some of the major tendencies in contemporary menswear and their wider cultural significance.

Men’s fashion in the last decade has been characterised by a style, pioneered by Hedi Slimane, of closer fit; an emphasis on fine drapey fabrics, shrunken tailoring and touches of androgyny. This aesthetic comprised of rocky and punky influences mixed with a kind of louche dandyism, the defining look: skinny jeans with a tailored jacket.[1]

Dior Homme by Hedi SlimaneDior Homme Hedi Slimane

Now a new menswear aesthetic appears to be emerging. Fashionable brands such as Our Legacy, YMC, Bleu de Paname and Folk are exploring a look with a strong emphasis on traditional fabrication, detailing which heavily references workwear, and hippyish folk-inspired touches, particularly in knit.

I would contest that while both of these styles are associated with particular designers and labels, their origins lie in fashionable dress as worn on the street. In both cases, models for these styles existed before their reproduction by designers: these were creative people who mixed second-hand, customised, and reclaimed garments to achieve their own look.

For me, this shift in menswear is intriguing. If we accept (as I do) that the clothes we put on encode meaning, we can suggest that this transformation reflects broader cultural and attitudinal changes. A desire to engage with the process of manufacture or make, strikes me as central to this folky-workwear aesthetic. Magazines such as Inventory, an early adopter and innovator of the style, spend as much time explaining to their readers how garments and accessories have been crafted, as discussing their inherent qualities. Equally, this is a look that favours texture (and even coarseness) over smooth, lustrous or drapey fabrics: there is a sense in which the consumer wants to see evidence of how the fabric has been woven or knitted.


It is surely laudable that consumers wish to know how, where, and by whom their clothes were made, with the concern for welfare and craft that implies. Nevertheless, there is (at least for me) an uneasiness about clothing that gives one the appearance of a 19th Century industrial or agricultural worker, but which costs many hundreds of pounds. To quote a friend “it’s as if people want to have things which are home-spun without spinning them themselves”. While it is easy to critique this consumption of craft as a co-option of something authentic by commercialism, it could be argued that it points to more radical instincts and aspirations in which work is meaningful, productive and celebrated.[2]

While the shift from rock-dandy to folky-proletarian may seem quite profound, I would suggest that both form part of a wider and more significant trend in which menswear has become more diverse and creative. Nor do I think that the styles pioneered by Hedi Slimane have become irrelevant, even if they are increasingly superseded by more contemporary interpretations of menswear. He remains for me one of the great innovators of modern fashion: in revisiting tailoring, exploring silhouette, and playing with the semantics of iconic menswear garments (the dinner jacket, the motorcycle jacket, the jean) he expanded what was deemed possible in menswear. The huge increase of interest in men’s fashion and the increased economic importance of the sector points to developments in male consumption and indeed in the consumption of masculinity(ies) which are worthy of further exploration.

[1] Some of us (hardly dinosaurs) entering fashion school in the first years of the 2000s remember how radical and indeed “contested” this new aesthetic was. Hedi Slimane’s collections for YSL and then Dior Homme started to attract positive attention at the same time as magazines like Arena Homme Plus were styling shoots with reinterpreted, nipped-in tailored styles, mixed with denim and leather. The process of the adoption of this look by the mainstream was slow, but by the end of the decade it had filtered right down to the high street.

[2] These problems and contradictions aren’t new of course. William Moriss and Arts and Crafts manufacturers came up against similar pressures in the 19th Century. I would also argue that as in Moriss’ day, they point to wider dissatisfactions with the model of market capitalism which prevails.