SERIAL THRILLER: Bridget Riley, The Curve Paintings 1961 – 2014 De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill on Sea

Bridget Riley-3

Bridget Riley, The Curve Paintings 1961-2014 installation at DLWP.

© Bridget Riley 2015. All rights reserved, courtesy Karsten Schubert, London

Even an English flâneur may have imagined being on the Côte d’Azur in this heat, pausing on the Promenade des Anglais, to admire the view. On an outstandingly bright summer morning, if you looked south from the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill on Sea towards France, the sea and brilliantly dazzling sky dissolved the field of vision, eschewing aerial perspective. Space had flattened; somehow, confirming the shifting nature of perception as optically realised and, therefore (or thereafter), re-conceptualised, re-seen, rather than diminished without the culturally acquired safety net of perspective.

Bridget Riley might be categorised as a ‘classic’ abstract/geometric painter, whose practice engages with image making that, autobiographically, encapsulates her perfectionist tendencies. Her methodological practice is invariably characterised by tightly controlled, sensuously schematic, repetitive and minimalist, optically demanding imagery. She’s a serial, visual, thriller – of the highest order.

I am here today, as part of a small posse of writers from the press, to look at a selection of paintings and prints that explore Riley’s fascination with the curve. Petite and agile, Bridget Riley, one of the internationally most acknowledged British artists of the twentieth century, generously and energetically informs and entertains. In what approximated a subtle balletic performance, she is self-assuredly poised, both physically and intellectually, to address those present with great enthusiasm and vitality. Her explanations are as exacting and precise as her imagery and her confidence is assured.

My sense is that behind this apparent coolness, regularity and control in her work an engagement with the world as it is experienced (hence the opening paragraph), both visually and physically, continues to inform her whole oeuvre. Readers of Riley’s collected writings, cleverly titled ‘The Eyes Mind’, will be aware of her early visual and tactile childhood memories of the sea and sun. Confirming the particularly visual contingency of her paintings and prints, the non-perspectival experience of the sea front panorama referenced above was echoed and confirmed in Bridget Riley’s own words: “Pictorial space has to be about something on a two-dimensional surface, in which pictorial space happens by pictorial thinking… perspective is by no means the only way.”

A sense of the closeness of France was also fortuitous: “French and early Modernist art was clearly about perception… a connection with that line of looking.” Engaging with the works on display in this retrospective collection, and turning to scan her audience frequently, to explain the practical, formative training that her particular form of abstraction partly derives from, she referenced her traditional art school training in drawing from the figure: “Drawing can develop your insights – drawing is a tool that can open up the world.” But Riley also explains that the history of art (especially the painting tradition) creates influences, and visual language systems, as essential as the daily practice of planning, and making, work. From considering the spatial investigations of Cézanne and her journey to abstraction, via an interest in Cubism, she references Bonnard and Matisse to illustrate her defining interest in line and colour. Art historical knowledge, and a constant meditation on the rich history that informs her concepts and her entire output are consistently made clear, for there are many: “Respected and admired artists from the past and we can learn from them… according to [our] temperament.”

In explaining her burgeoning practice, as a young, aspiring artist in 1960s London, she says: “It was a sort of statement… I learnt to draw when I went to art school… I was taught to make figure drawings… I was very interested in colour… basic colour relationships… I would look at Matisse… How would Matisse be able to make that? From tonal painting, colour lightened and darkened… there had been an immense adventure in modern art… I went to work for J. Walter Thompson and in the lunch hour I went down to the ICA and Cork Street to listen to lectures by David Sylvester, Laurence Alloway and [Roland] Penrose…”

Her audience is captivated by now; she continued: “The development of modern art was halted by the two wars… I went to look at an exhibition of Futurists… (Visits to the Venice Biennale and Milan are mentioned too) … there were important and interesting things in it… abstract thinking… I carried on with making my own abstract work… instead of abstracting from things seen out there in reality… Bonnard and Matisse could do much more than Mondrian had done… I started from a line, what a line can do, a square, a circle… when I altered, changed or distorted something that was familiar to people… I found ways of making things active…”

Riley’s ability to clearly elucidate her practice as an abstract artist par excellence, and her measured use of a precise language, to objectively explain and describe the carefully selected examples from her Curve paintings, provided a simple exegesis of practice that absorbed the audience. That she believes that painting is still relevant was clear: “Painting is an incredible discipline and a great art form.” And again she emphasised tradition: “All my experiences [with the] figurative is a huge help in knowing what a painting needs if it’s to develop.”

Riley’s articulateness matched the refinement of her paintings. She drew the meaning out of the works, confirming the evidence presented to the viewer’s attentive mind. But her work is not purely cerebral, as the physical engagement and geometric coordination within her work is truly embodied: and not only in the eye. The sense of flow in the paintings echoes the movement of the human form and the environment that we occupy. Most especially, lines and angles of orientation are designed to evoke pictorial space: “Vertical had to bear the stripe… lead to the plane… the painting is very transitive… Verticals allowed one to have a rhythm, to contrast it with the curves.”

But, there was a period of 17 years of an insistence on the horizontal in her prints and paintings (1980-1997). This revelation had to be re-visited. Of the return to the curve she states, “the curve is more open to amazing changes than the straight line.” Again, Riley confirms her appreciation of the line, learnt from life drawing as a student, and that “The contrapposto is like frozen movement… The curve is so elastic and changeable.”

In discussing ‘Lagoon 2’ (1997) she admits that she was: “Trying to get the curve back”. And paradox is readily admitted: “Contour suggests a flat volume…” This elegant painting (quite large at approximately 1.5 X 2 metres, but absorbing visually, and not at all imposing) has the feel of a dense forest of colour-shapes, which is neo-Cubistic: Cézanne through Matisse’s eyes. Or, as Riley discloses, is based on the notion of her idea of looking at Matisse looking at Cézanne.

Superficially, Riley’s own personality, and temperament, as a painter appears less sensual than Matisse. But a flattened painterliness, where autobiographical marks are repressed, still allows colour and line to dominate with the joie de vivre we associate with the French master. The surface quality in Riley’s paintings is typically one of relentless smoothness, but colour sensation is still paramount.

In ‘Rêve’ (1999) contrasts and harmonies work with and against each other with a colour scheme of blue/green and cream/yellow. In ‘Painting with Verticals 3’ (2006) and ‘Rajasthan’ (2012) there is a pronounced sense of purposeful movement across the surface. In the latter, Riley describes the “march of the greens”, as this organic colour comes alive amongst orange, red, grey and white.

Bridget Riley’s abstract art is clearly modernist, but notwithstanding her traditional training as a painter (she still produces cartoons for her paintings), her work successfully combines a strongly characteristic feature of line through disegno (drawing) with form as colore (colour) to attain a synoptic temporality: intimating a psychogeographic relationship with space through physical positioning and perception; and a sense of time and rhythm integrated in and through the intrinsic properties of the images. The association of colour and line, especially the curve, is sensuous at a visual and an intellectual level. If this interpretation is correct, it might suggest that a purely non-objective abstraction is a fanciful notion – because contingency is unavoidable, so long as human beings continue to make art.

Geoff Hands


De La Warr


Painters Table

A lasting impression after the show: Vivarini and Richter at Moretti Fine Art – Frieze Masters 2014

Santa Caterina d'AlessandriaVivarini – Santa Caterina d’Alessadria

It is sometimes said that there are too many images in the world, particularly in this great information age. Visiting both Frieze Art Fair and Frieze Masters in Regents Park, London this autumn certainly enabled us to indulge in mixing the past and the present in a particularly concentrated and carefully selected celebration of some of the highest quality and thought provoking examples of fine art from many countries, cultures and eras. Now, of course, we move on to more great venues and exhibitions that reveal the seemingly exponential nature of the visual arts. Despite the endless production of works of art, contemplating the many forms of practice from all ages confirms the universal, humanistic nature of the plastic arts that often combine mystery with a visualised clarity of thought.

As with all art fairs, something will linger in the memory for longer than the duration of the event. From Frieze Masters one of our abiding experiences that we are still recollecting and discussing was the fascinating triptych presentation by Moretti Fine Art of Antonio Vivarini’s, ‘Saint Catharine of Alexandria’ (‘Santa Caterina d’Alessandria’) hung between Gerhard Richter’s two slightly smaller abstract paintings (‘Abstract Bild’ 454-4 and 454-5). Moretti had shown this same combination at the Biennale des Antiqaires in Paris a few weeks ago and this was a decision well worth repeating for a new, and broader, audience.

The reading of painted, European, images made some 500 years apart will be oriented to a stylistic contrast for it is sometimes impossible to separate art historical knowledge from perception. When first confronting these three small paintings, we were compelled to look at and to read what was instantaneous: The iconography and well-known story line in Vivarini’s painting, and the medium-specific, painterly, abstract, materiality of Richter’s pair of canvases were immediately obvious, The clever, but simple, juxtaposition of these works on the Moretti stand immediately set up a figurative/abstract comparison that could, potentially, construe a dialectical opposition, whether this was intentional or not by the curators. However, we found that these immediate readings could be reversed, emphasizing the surface, materiality and non-narrative features in the Saint Catharine; and the framework of a metaphysical abstraction in the potential of a less formalistic, Greenbergian, reading of the non-figurative compositions.

To some extent the work of both painters are paradigmatic: Vivarini’s style provides an example of Venetian late Gothic, albeit with subtle elements of the ‘new’ perspective and anatomically conscious scientific knowledge shifting the visual language from flatness to roundedness and the space of the world inhabited by the viewer. For example, despite the typically two dimensional halo, there is, in her crown, a hint of perspective that, with the three-quarters view of the portrait, ‘modernises’ St Catherine as a fellow human-being rather than as a symbolic representation. Also, Vivarini has attempted, although not fully realised, to depict the hand as structurally convincing rather than as a flat approximation or template. However, the gothic elements are pervasive, as a monumental St Catharine is set against a blank background (a Florentine master, such as Botticelli, would by now have included an architectural space) and the image, probably part of an altarpiece, was made for a church rather than a palace.

Richter Abstraktes Bild 454-4Richter – Abstraktes Bild 454-4

Ricter Abstraktes Bild 454-6Richter – Abstraktes Bild 454-6

Richter knowingly, and perhaps in an act of appropriation of style, presents an example of 20th-century abstraction: in this case, of the painterly and expressive kind rather than hard-edged and overtly systematic. The colour scheme is essentially rich and fiery – which, when associated, and seen, with the Martyr Saint Catherine, could be interpreted as pertaining to the spiritual desire of her faith. Yet it is this simple, blank backdrop that makes the visual link to the Richter paintings and to a sense of the mystery, and metaphysical meaning, of colour. The Italian master applies tempera onto a gold ground panel through which an orange-red spiritual space is enhanced by the close proximity of the oils in Richter’s paintings. The visual influence is reciprocated as the subtle green and flat geometric forms in ‘Abstract Bild 454-6’, to the right, echo colours and shapes in the St. Catharine. We also perceive a correspondence between the broken spoke that suggests piercing, and perhaps crucifixion (martyrdom), and the yellow diagonal in the bottom left-hand quarter of Richter’s abstract composition. In either case, each painter’s work is seen afresh because of this presentation.

There will, doubtless, be many more ‘readings’ and connections, convincing or not, between these paintings and it might be more significant that paintings from very different eras in the fine arts are capable of generating interpretations and opportunities for co-existence than for any specific links we are constructing at the moment. This potentiality in contemporary curatorship, to align art works from all periods and cultures to produce holistic meanings or conflicting debates, can only be proof that a notion of community speaks across the ages, making notions of the ‘modern’ and of ‘progress’ questionable.

Geoff Hands (October 2014)

Maintaining integrity: Pippa Young and Helena Clews

Pippa Young at Coombe Gallery and Helena Clews at Brown Hill Arts, Dartmouth

Clews 2013_01_04
Helena Clews – ‘Pitch’ (2012) Oil on linen. (c) Helena Clews
comfortably swaddled copy
Pippa Young – ‘Comfortably Swaddled’ (c) Pippa Young

A visit to Dartmouth in Devon (south-west England), however brief, will inevitably draw visitors interested in painting to some of the significant number of small art galleries that are a feature of the town. Many of the galleries are typical of those found at other English holiday resorts where the subject matter of the majority of the images that fill the gallery walls belongs to the Marine genre. Inevitably, the standards on display will range from one end of the quality spectrum to the other. Much of the work can be easily dismissed and contemporary works that might be found in more cosmopolitan centres, such as Cork Street in London, are rarely found.

However, two galleries that we came across exhibited works that maintained an impressive personal artistic integrity, rather than slavishly following a formula to produce mediocre, but saleable, images for the marketplace. Coombe Gallery included a number of portrait works by Pippa Young. She is a highly skilful painter who creates portraits that are intriguing in terms of possible meanings, or readings, and appear to reference Italian and Dutch portraiture (the great Venetian Giovanni Bellini most especially sprang to mind). The visual language of her practice is confident and communicates a narrative that is not slavish to realism but creates a great possibility for what might be termed a ‘magical conversation’ (an implied reference to the sacra conversazione of the Quattrocento). This discussion of meaning for the viewer will prompt thoughts and discussions about the identity of these singular characters, situated in anonymous spaces that reveal little or nothing about context, but are augmented by gestures and artefacts (for example, a sheep’s skull or piece of red cord) to imply a possible psychological, or subjective, interpretation. As a counter-point to the near photo-realism of these portraits, Young’s figures typically have blank areas of canvas where there might otherwise be hair or a headpiece. Also, fabrics rendered as flat are juxtaposed with the traditional perspectival language of realism.

At Brown Hill Arts, Helena Clews exhibited abstract works that revealed her interest in exploring “…the possibilities of painting in the liminal space between abstraction and representation”; and alluding, “to something that is difficult to define or identify clearly as a particular thing in the world, whilst at the same time being recognisable aesthetically as an ‘abstract’ painting.” Interestingly, this is Clews’ own gallery project and she maintains her practice of abstraction (albeit from the world around her) in a market that is not necessarily favourable to non-figurative art. For this stance, she is to be congratulated. At this early stage of her career the dangers of succumbing to more commercial demands on style and subject matter can be difficult to resist, especially in the environment of the holiday resort where the pseudo-Marine subject matter will dominate what is on offer. We were particularly impressed with Clews’ fluid painting style and a self-assured use of colour, economically employed as gestural marks with allusions to objects, space and atmospheres.

In both artists’ work there is an interest in visual language and visual communication at a sophisticated level. This is a factor they share in common with other contemporary artists, who can choose to reference the past, question matters of language and meaning, yet strive to construct their own voice and originality as painters.

Geoff Hands


Writing: Introduction




Alongside my painting practice, I have regularly kept notebooks in the studio. Some time after completion of the MA programme in Creative Writing at Sussex University I decided to write about art exhibitions. The initial impetus was to use the writing experience to clarify and develop my own thoughts about the creative process.

A more public opportunity to communicate these responses to looking at art (especially painting) was offered to me by Stefano Pirovano at Conceptual Fine Arts (CFA).

Ruminations: Exhibition Reviews will essentially be posting responses to a wide range of exhibitions. Additional material from my personal writing will also appear from time to time.

Some reviews for Abcrit appear here, but most will remain exclusive to that website. For this opportunity, I thank Robin Greenwood.

Reviews for CFA remain exclusive to the CFA website.

Instantloveland, a new venture instigated by John Bunker and Matthew Dennis (May 2018), will also feature my writing.