Arts in Ayrshire  ~  Visual Arts Reviews

Bridget Riley at the Maclaurin Art Gallery  ~  A South West Galleries Association Exhibition reviewed by Clare Henry.

Scots welcome a friendly superstar

Since the dawn of the swinging sixties Bridget Riley and Op Art have been synonymous. Her hallucinatory painted visual illusions of spirals twisting, dizzy dots dancing, waves of colour rippling and quivering, have now been playing convincing tricks on our retinas for 25 years.

As Britain's leading pioneer, she influenced whole generations of students and rapidly achieved international acclaim. With experience of one=man shows in New York Tokyo, Sydney, Dusseldorf, Turin, Basle, Prague National Gallery, and London's Hayward, and works in every major world collection, Riley is accustomed prestigious reception and high-powered audiences.

Yet last weekend this modest, friendly superstar took the time, not only to attend the press reception and preview of her exhibition at the Maclaurin Art Gallery, Ayr, but to talk enthusiastically to a packed house who sat enthralled as, clearly and honestly, she explained her method of working, her aims, the many trials and errors, and confided the fact that, no, she never read a single book on the theory of optics.

'People give me technical and scientific manuals all the time. I just can't take them in. I don't know what the devil the authors are talking about. To me it's dead knowledge. I think painters must trust their eyes.'

After the lecture, surrounded by three rooms full of her paintings from 1957 - 1985, and between signing autographs for devoted fans, she bubbled excitedly about Ayr and the wonderful reception she had received in the south-west of Scotland. 'It's easy to have a show in New York or London but I think it is marvellous to be invited here.'

Only later did I learn what a bargain the ratepayers and art lovers of Scotland have got in this major Riley tour (the exhibition goes to the Dick Institute, Kilmarnock in october, then the McLean at Greenock, and the Lillie, Milngavie before ending at Paisley Art Gallery in April, 1987). For owing to the imaginative collaboration and pooling of resources of these five district council galleries (plus aa sixth, Dumfries and Galloway whose absence from the tour is merely due to space problems), the newly formed South West Galleries Association are fighting the cuts by getting value for money through partnership.

At a time when exhibition budgets can easily top £1000,000, South West Galleries have achieved a major coup for well under £19,000 (this covers the entire eight-month tour).

Everything, even the catalogue design, is done in house. Each gallery chips in with a standard payment (in this case generously matched by more than 50% from the Scottish Arts Council. Competitive prices for transport and printing were essential but even Riley's dealer, Alex Gregory-Hood of London's Juda Rowan Gallery, said he was well pleased with the Firebird colour invitation card. And as one informed Museum Council official observed, 'the exhibition is a triumph. If the South West Galleries Association can pull this off, then the sky's the limit for them.'

Coincidentally, that very same day the Arts Council's Sir William Rees Mogg and Tim Mason in Scotland had been advocating a new drive for creative 'Partnership: Making Arts Money Work Harder'. And while sniping at Glasgow's Mayfest and the Crawford and MacRobert Arts Centre, they would have been encouraged to hear that by 11 a.m. on Saturday morning a queue had formed for the Riley exhibition which had 250 visitors in the first two hours. And this not on Princes Street or Sauchiehall Street, but in Rozelle Park on the outskirts of a small town.

A special feature of this South West joint venture (whose next project in Children in Art to open in Paisley in 1987) is an educational input. Each divisional art adviser, and even one of Her Majesties Inspectors, have been involved. Special notes for kids are available and schools visits are being encouraged. And not least is the Association member's determination to remain anonymous. 'It's not fair if you mention one of us and not another. We're not out to promote ourselves, just to make better use of our resources and better exhibitions.'

The Association wanted to show Riley's work because they felt that , though a major figure, her paintings are not readily accessible in Scotland. The exhibition begins with two early Seurat copies she made in 1950. Though trained as a figurative artist she soon became interested in abstraction and the principle of colour division.

Riley believes that the best way to learn about pointillism is by copying. When teaching during the 1960's she had soon discovered that putting colour on its lots of tiny dots didn't necessarily work. 'We stippled away but nothing happened. The surface was total static, inert. Neither I nor the children had enough experience to make a vibrating optical mixture.'

Her first Op Art paintings were in black and white because she felt that she would never be able to handle colour. She concentrated on depicting waves, triangles, or zig-zags under different sorts of pressure or tension so that they activated the flat picture surface. Her work has the precision and inevitability of a scientific chart but, because it is not cold and purely rational, the results are magical.

The love affair with colour began by chance when holidaying in Egypt in 1981. 'I discovered the ancient Egyptians had had the same palette of four unblended colours - reel, yellow, turquoise, and blue - for 3000 years. (They added green at the end, a touch of decadence!) This amazing harmony applied to everything - their temples, clothes, jewellery, barges, yet it was always slightly different. Each craftsman had his own unique combinations. And these few colours had been made to hold their own in brilliant Mediterranean light. I was thunderstruck.'

She went on from Egypt to Japan where she had a major new show opening. @After all that brilliance, when I saw my own grey paintings I was bitterly disappointed.'

Since then she has devoted her time to trying to find a form for colour . Eventually she settled on the stripe as the most neutral vehicle. 'People find it extremely dull and I am accused of imitating American painters, but it's got lots of edges and no weight or body'

I once visited her in her tall, thin London house. All but the tope floor is completely devoted to studio space and I saw for myself how meticulously she plans, experimenting with endless colour combinations before assistants paint up the large canvases.

The most recent picture at Ayr, Rose Return of 1986, is made up of her four Egyptian colours plus pink instead of black and white.

The glowing result, as one friend put it is, 'several kilowatts coming off the wall.' In fact, Riley has since discovered 'a new and better form of colour' which will be unveiled at her New York show later this year. 'It's very exciting,' she told me. 'To be able to make a nugget of colour and make it jump, breathe, echo; I've found this a wonderful thing.'

The exhibition is at the Maclaurin Art gallery, Ayr, until October 12.

Clare Henry
The Herald, 9th September, 1986


Catalogue Illustration: Bridget Riley in her studio. Photograph ©John Webb FRPS

Rose Return
Bridget Riley (b1931). Rose Return (1985). Oil on Linen 1630 x 1430 mm. Purchased from the Juda Rowan Gallery. Collection: The Maclaurin Trust Photograph Date 2010 ©The Maclaurin Trust

Bridget Riley Exhibition launch at Lillie Art Gallery, Milngavie. Association members James Erskine, Elizabeth Dent and Mike Bailey present an AA Sign to Bridget Riley. Date January 1987 Photographer unknown

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