Review: Bridget Riley

October 25, 2019
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Hayward Gallery

Bridget Riley, one of the defining figures in the op art movement of the 1950s and 60s, was as much a psychologist as she was a painter. Her works aren’t really about what’s on the canvas (although her flawless brush strokes are certainly nice enough) – they’re about the sensations they provoke, the strange, hypnotic effect they have on the human brain. 

Looking into her giant canvases can be disorienting, transfixing, even overwhelming. You can almost hear them vibrate. She uses simple optical tricks – contrasting colours, subtly tapering lines – to mess with your visual cortex. Riley’s paintings are a dialogue – you’re not a static observer, you’re invited to tilt your head, move around, come at them from different angles.

Repeating black  and white triangles shift before you like a mirage: one moment you see boxes, then circles, then receding shades of grey, then three dimensional patterns.

Some make your vision swim, the spaces between lines flickering and pulsing, your brain unable to process exactly what it’s looking at – sometimes it will fill in the blanks with nonsense, like zebra stripes throwing off a predator. Even when you look away your vision reels.

Others pieces use shape to create the illusion of depth. Rectangles of decreasing size create a deep a valley in the centre of a painting. Repeating circles, some squished, make a canvas bulge. The illusions are so convincing you want to put your head against the wall to make sure she’s not cheating (if you do you’ll spot her signature hidden away on the side of the canvas, so as not to disturb all those perfect lines).

Elsewhere are studies of how one colour affects another:  how pink against blue appears different to pink against orange, for instance. This interplay suggests that the things we think of as solid or fixed are in fact relative, that we’re forever unconsciously deciphering the world, creating meaning out of chaos. 

Some of her spot paintings bring to mind Damien Hirst, although she started making them before he was a gleam in his parents’ eyes. There are further similarities, too: both make liberal use of assistants to finish their works, the real spark happening in the planning rather than the process.

I get the feeling Riley’s paintings lack a little of the impact they once held, before similar optical illusions began to endlessly circle our Instagram feeds. But the sheer breadth of the work, the relentless experimentation, is a joy. 

I’m also not sure the pieces painted directly onto the gallery walls add much, lacking the striking immediacy of the canvases. But with a collection this bold there will inevitably be misses as well as hits. For the most part, this is an exhibition to be savoured; for every extra minute you spend in front of these paintings your appreciation increases exponentially.