Bridget Riley: National Gallery - Painter who doesn't paint!
Thought I’d see the Bridget Riley fims first before her exhibition but was shocked to find that the paintings I was about to see in the gallery weren’t painted by her at all, but by some flunkies. Sure artists have always had studio assistants, but can you claim to be the painter if you haven’t painted a single stroke on a painting?
Riley works at the edge of perception, where perception starts to fail and make mistakes. Her paintings induce perceptual errors. That’s interesting and challenges any romantic view of art being ‘truth’. Unfortunately, this is an area in which science and philosophy excel, and art stumbles around thinking it’s relevant. The recent Horizon documentary produced more stunning examples than Riley of this perceptual edge. You can push abstraction to this level, but then it falls apart as the brain’s expectations take over. That’s Riley’s point I suppose, but there’s other ways to play the perceptual game.
To what extent this is art and not geometrical puzzles is an interesting question. I was left underwhelmed by this small collection as there’s no real aesthetic hit from the two wall paintings or the others. The circles cover a huge wall and the eye struggles to resolve the foreground and background planes, but this is a simple and old illusion. When painting is reduced to ‘painting’ alone, it’s a cold medium. Rileys are like cold salads, colourful but not really full meals. There’s a little room with two films by Riley, one on her own work, the other on colour in the history of art.
There was an interesting second film on the use of colour by Titian, Veronese, Rubens, El Greco and Poussin is excellent. I’ll never look at these artists again without being aware of the lines created by created lines of colour coding, especially in Poussin. Indeed, when we walked to the Wallace Collection later, the luminescent skin in the Rubens and famous Poussin were like different paintings, confirming the role of knowledge in the interrogation of painting. She was also perceptive on the limitations of these artists..