Dazzling discombobulation at the National Gallery of Scotland’s impressive Bridget Riley retrospective.
Woosh. That’s the sound of my head spinning. Unexpected, sea-sick inducing brilliance from the understated master of geometric abstraction.
This summer the National Gallery of Scotland have devoted their blockbuster-exhibition slot to an extensive retrospective of works by British painter Bridget Riley. Part of the Edinburgh Art Festival, the entirety of the Royal Scottish Academy has been filled with painterly theme park rides. The walk through is as impressive as it is unnerving. I am enjoying myself – but I feel rather queasy.
Throughout the exhibition you are confronted with shape-shifting paintings that seemingly defy the laws of physics. Two-dimensional canvases are covered in wavy lines, each tendril filled with tonal blends of monochrome shading. Suddenly these rivers of paint leap off the painting, meandering this way and that until you are submerged within the perspective upheaval of the artwork.
Writing in 1979, Riley stated that her works often create “a certain sensation of change: moving from one state to another, a transition”. The paintings on show certainly deliver. Her consistent motif of black and white lines and checker boards can seem fairly innocuous when viewing cold images online and in books. The reality of confronting these masterpieces head-on in the flesh is a sudden realisation of the limits of optical perception. As your vision blurs in and out of focus, the illusion of active movement by the painting is truly disconcerting, your eyes are not the truthful window to the world you my have thought they were.
After all this visual duplicity it time for something less slippery and more colourful. Continuing through the grand rooms we come to a painting which has slipped off its canvas. Rajasthan is a gorgeous medley of red, coral and green, painted directly on to the gallery’s historic walls. It is reminiscent of Matisse’s cut-out work. Craftsmen from Riley’s studio have been flown in, specifically to create this joyous mural, and at the end of this run it will be whitewashed over. Only one mural is allowed to exist at any one point in time anywhere in the world. An astute condition that prevents the work from feeling decorative, instead encouraging meditations on transience and authorship.
Below decks in the Academy’s lower galleries you will encounter early works and life drawings from the artist’s student days. This seems to me an unnecessary trope of the thorough retrospective. However, if you enjoy tracing the development of an artist this biographically, then make full sail ahead. I prefer the planning diagrams upstairs in the back room on the left. Smaller works on paper with diligently inscribed mandates on how resulting artworks should be constructed.
Now if you still have any doubts I urge you to take some time to see this exhibition. You will encounter work that is immediately recognisable, yet completely different to how you expect it to look. This is one to make a journey for.
Bridget Riley is open daily at the Scottish National Gallery until 22 Sept.