Bridget Riley: The Royal Scottish Academy at National Galleries Scotland

This exhibition of Bridget Riley’s work is set in ten rooms of the Royal Scottish Academy. It is ordered mostly chronologically. This collection covers 70 years of Riley’s work, which was produced between the late 1940s and 2019.

The information signage is restrained. The exhibition’s primary focus is optics, or the ‘study of looking’. Riley noted of her work’s progression that ‘perception’ became its ‘medium’. The viewer became an active participant in its continuous construction. The first artworks are combinations of vertical, horizontal and diagonal lines. They are dizzying and slightly nauseating. The colours are initially unappealing: numerous black and white sets, or intensely clashing combinations. Some artworks seem to physically ripple, and drew my eyes downwards instead of up as though they were sliding down a pole.

This work surprised me by bringing up forgotten sadness and sensations of being alone. A few rooms in, curves are added in. Softer colour patterns hesitantly appear. The leaflet quotes Riley: ‘When colours are twisted along the rise and fall of a curve their juxtapositions change continually.’ Different formations separate, conjoin and mix. There is a focus on structure and organization. A ‘situation is stated’ in each piece. However, the pieces do not suggest what theirs might be. My primary conflict was whether to feel hopeful or daunted when interacting with the art. The next sign included a quote by Riley: ‘I don’t paint light. I present a colour situation which releases light as you look at it.’

The collection then features evidence of the detailed planning which Riley undertook before the physical creation of the artworks. There are complex mathematical equations next to her initial drawings. Next to one, a quote: ‘The working process is one of discovery and it is worth remembering that the word discovery implies an uncovering of that which is hidden’. On one hand, it all looked so complex and tiring it seemed like nothing in the world could really be that complex. On the other hand, Riley suggests that it is by such structures and forms that things have actually been hidden from our view.

The final room is called ‘Beginnings’, and features artwork Riley produced between 1946 and the late 1950s. Some of the works are portraits of people in uncomfortable positions, and drawings of people in painful red that makes the subjects look like they could dissipate. These paintings invoke a world that is messy. They also evoke intense emotional interest in their subjects. There is a contrast between how colours and forms were dissected earlier in the exhibition, and how the subjects of these paintings are whole but still vulnerable.

This exhibition is exciting. It assesses the value of experimentation with confusing, unusual patterns. As Riley noted, through the art ‘one finds oneself having to organize the visual and emotional information extracted’. Neither wholeness nor the myriad combinations of parts offer immediate organization, but they are in a mutual relationship through the strand of Riley’s life. Riley exposes the many emotional shades of grey that patterns evoke, and the ways that each part interacts with each other. Ultimately, it looks at how it feels to ‘look’.

‘Bridget Riley’ shows at the Royal Scottish Academy till September 22 – buy tickets here.

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James Sullivan

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