Head down to Waterloo tube station and then follow the signs that point off towards the Southbank Centre. It’s a route that means passing the plaques memorialising the railway staff who lost their lives in the great wars of the last century and also descending a rather impressive looking staircase and, although its hard to be certain now, I think this may once have been part of the original grand main entrance to the grand mainline station. Over the years, however, a mix of ad hoc architectural interventions combined with exterior alterations to the surrounding roads and pavements have combined to transform and shrink the area into a somewhat shabby and shambolic pedestrian pinch point. And today a gentle pitter patter of rain descends on the scene which adds not just a layer of grey psychogeographical gloom to the generally depressing atmosphere of this clumsy chaotic cold spot but also increases the sad hurly burly hubbub as people speed their pace and keep their heads down, and are then in danger of tripping over the beggars and newspaper stands as they swerve to avoid the oncoming traffic, both human and motorised.
It’s all a bit of a mess and would definitely benefit from a complete tidy-up makeover which could usefully be extended to include the entire route I’m about to take to get to my destination at the Hayward Gallery. I suppose some people like the al fresco food court that fills the space at the back of the basement of Royal Festival Hall but the pungent mix of conflicting greasy and garlicky aromas that waft away from the various grills, barbecues and kebab rotisseries that are bunched together here, don’t so much make my mouth start to water as my stomach start to turn. Given the choice, I think I’d get rid of it all and also update the grubby temporary staircase of scaffolding poles and wooden planks that leads up to the great pool of puddled water that provides a final sad hazard before the grim brutalist facade of the Hayward Gallery itself finally comes into view.
So, perhaps not the most spiritually uplifting start to the day, although my mood does decidedly improve when I see that there’s a great long line of punters all shuffling about as they patiently wait to buy their tickets to get into the recently opened exhibition here. Well, the Southbank is one of those great cultural institutions to which I pay an annual membership subscription and one of the benefits of that extravagant financial outlay is an entitlement to queue jump and gain instant access to the shows being held therein. Frankly, it’s an advantage seldom used, since recent displays here have been so lacking in general appeal that I can’t recall the last time there was any more than maybe one or two other people waiting ahead of me at the door.
Anyway, today is different, and not just because the rain seems to have drawn a crowd of people to the shelter of the Gallery but also, for some reason, there seems to be a choice of entrances to get into the exhibition. One is just by the ticket desk – which would mean those in the queue would clearly see me striding past them, waving my bright yellow membership card, and gaining immediate VIP ingress – the other is set more discreetly off to the side. While hugely tempted to flaunt my insider artworld status, in fact, I demure and choose the latter. Well, modesty is my middle name, although I’m not sure that there’s much point in acting with such humble nobility unless it’s possible subsequently to let everyone know about it, which is why I thought it might be useful to record the event for posterity here in this blog.
All of which finally gets me to the start of the Bridget Riley retrospective which is indeed the exhibition now filling both floors of the Hayward Gallery although, as indicated already, the room I’ve actually entered is but one of a couple of alternate beginnings to the show. And, had I chosen the other entrance, I would then have had the choice of a further two other potential paths to turn to start the tour through the displays. There’s no obvious signage to indicate a recommended route or direction of travel and, while the free gallery guide gives a brief indication of the artistic contents of each of the eight separate sections of the show, its design is similarly equivocatingly ambivalent as to any preferred order in which to visit these rooms. Although, having said that, the paintings and sketches that have been gathered together within each one of the individual octet of spaces have largely been grouped together according to a chronology of their production. Consequentially, it seems clear that a definite curatorial decision seems to have been made to scramble things up and then allow visitors to try to unscramble them as best they can.
And this puts me in a bit of a quandary. I suppose I could write a blog based on the route I actually took when walking around the Gallery but I kind of think that for the sake of simplicity, and to avoid a bumpy kind of hip-hop time travelling jump about back and forth between the decades, it’s probably easiest if I start at the beginning of the Riley story and try to chart the outline course of her own artistic journey by sticking to the straightforward chronological progression she took from her sunrise salad days of callow student experimentation through to her current sunset banquet years of exalted acclamation. And for anyone wishing to go to the trouble of actually starting out on this road then it means heading off upstairs, turning right and going to the back of the space to the end room which the Gallery guide usefully and accurately titles as ‘Beginnings’.
Here are Riley‘s early sketches, designs, drafts and a couple of fully finished paintings, all of which confirm that back in the 1950s art students were expected to show they had a natural ability to be able to draw a fair representation of a figure that confirmed a reasonable knowledge of internal anatomy as well as the way the contours of a body were shaped and how the light and shadows would then fall around it. And if those skills were then shown to have been satisfactorily mastered, the aspirant artist would be required to practice painterly skills – mixing up a palette, preparing a canvas and then pushing around the colours in an attempt to create an image that faithfully reproduced the representation of a portraited person or some other pleasing arrangement of inanimate still life subject matter or living landscape environment. It’s clear from the little collection of ephemeral bit and bobs on display here that Riley was a real A-grade student with a definite artistical facility and could very likely have developed her skills to become a technically proficient figurative painter. Whether she would have stood out from the crowds of other such talented practitioners is hard to tell since, at this early stage in her career, the choice of content for her work – which would ultimately have determined how successful she might have become – was probably being initiated largely by her tutors and there’s little indication of her own youthful personality, interests or experiences.
Anyway, at some point during these early student days, it seems that Riley discovered Seurat, the great French Post-Impressionist who devised the Pointilist technique of painting in the dots and dashes of complementary colours that then mysteriously managed to merge together in the eyes of the beholders and so produce his rather beautiful tableaux of fuzzy forms and blurry landscapes. And initially, as is carefully documented in the next, sensibly adjacent display section, Riley paid Seurat the compliment of copying some of his technical tricks of painterly application. I assume, however, that she must have quickly realised that while all that careful dotting and dashing could indeed produce marvellous results of shimmeringly sublime intensity, it was also an excruciatingly slow process. Not only that, but an almost equivalent sensation of glowing aesthetical warmth could be obtained by keeping the concept of placing different pixilated bites of colour together but enlarging the elements in scale up to much larger proportions and, more importantly, giving up on the attempt to recreate realistic representations of life in the real world and instead just concentrate on creating scenes of pure unadulterated abstraction.
The rest, as they say, is art history as Riley goes on to expand upon these early experiments in colour theory constructions and produce the sequences of curves, waves, stripes and spots of interwoven tonalities that have made her one of the very few British abstractionists to have attained international recognition. And indeed, the walls of the Hayward are filled up with many examples of such familiar works, some energising and some enervating but all with at least some degree of dislocatory sensory stimulation and undeniable eye-catching attractability.
But, hang on a minute, there’s something wrong with this story. And, for cynical conspiracy theorists like myself, it’s hard not to wonder whether the curious curatorial decision to layout the show in such a determinedly mashed-up chronology hasn’t been deliberately devised to promote some specific artistic agenda. Which, in this case, I assume to be an intent to muddy up the temporal waters in order to promote the idea outlined above, that Riley took up a baton passed on directly by Seurat and that she is, therefore, in some way the natural modern heir and successor to the great Impressionists of the past. It’s a nice idea but what puts the wrinkle in that rather pretty tale is the fact that at some point, soon after her initial cursory dabbling in the colourful waters of Pointillism, Riley abruptly switched direction, and dropped her allegiance to Seurat when she happened upon a set of gimmicky monochrome optical illusion tricks and twists that chimed in with a sort of sexy sci-fi ’60s aesthetic. Placing streams of dots and ellipses together to give an impression of depth, and packing wavy lines of alternate black and white stripes to cause the sensation of movement, were well known ways of demonstrating the foibles and fallibilities of human retinal cognition but Riley had the inspired idea of taking them out of the scientific text books and sticking them onto a canvas. Not only did the imagery looked just very psychedically groovy it also reproduced very well in the newspapers of the day, all of which undoubtedly help give Riley the immediate pop celebrity boost that launched her career. Especially when some hack then coined the wonderful, immediately memorable marketing term of Op Art.
To actually now get to see the pictures from that exciting period means reversing back through the rooms and going downstairs where it’s perhaps slightly surprising to discover that far from looking desperately dated, as so many of the futuristic visions from the past tend to do so after just a comparatively few decades into the present, they all still look quite fresh, even if not quite so full of zeitgeisty fizz. It’s also impressive to see just how inventive Riley was in managing to keep churning out more and more variations on the same themes of illusionist trickery. But it clearly couldn’t go on for ever which is presumably why Riley then returned to those less restrictive, multicoloured options that she’d played about with some years before.
I think it’s fair to say that none of her later works ever achieved quite the same popular opular buzz of the famous black and white zingers but I’m not sure that’s hurt Riley‘s professional reputation. Indeed, it may very well have helped it along since today she is probably regarded as not just a faddish peddler of flashy gimmickery but rather a sophisticated colourist top rank intellectual colour theorist and all round abstractional heavyweight.
Going back to the actual first room that I entered when I walked into the exhibition here meant, in fact, that I started at the end – the works in this room being Riley‘s most recent offerings. Essentially, they’re all based around simple patterns of dully patinated circles of colour. And while not as shiny bright or regimentally arranged as those ubiquitous spots of Damien Hirst, I’m not sure that there’s all that much to choose between them when it comes to offering up retinal refreshment or cerebral stimulation. Those who are aware of the respective reputations of the two artists, however, will doubtless see things very differently: his a trite exercise in branding and marketing; hers the culmination of a lifetime dedicated to the exploration, examination and investigation of the very elemental particles of visual quanta, and following directly in the best traditions of the earliest and greatest of the Modernists. And achieving that level of elevated reverential recognition is perhaps really Riley‘s greatest optical illusion.