As an incomer to Kent, I’ve always had a guilty preference for Sussex. We lay claim to Turner (hence the Anthea Turner Gallery), Hamish Fulton walks down the road and H.G. Wells and Joseph Conrad were locals, but after Tommy Cooper, Mary Tourtel and Peter Firmin there’s a sense that you run out of culture. (Tracey, I forgot Tracey.)
Stand still and look at the flat square.
Look at the plane.
Slowly, inevitably, against your will, it begins to move. To dance, to ripple.
Still a plane.
You look away and there’s still an after image.
There’s no doubt a scientific explanation about the limitations of vision and the brain filling in the gaps – we can’t separate the white from the black or (later) the green, blue, grey.
Oh look, it’s Crest, again.
Riley’s curve paintings began with a black square, which seem to be everywhere at the moment. Malevich and all that. But she wasn’t happy – it didn’t express her failure as an artist enough.
So an experiment led to a circle and a square, Or rather a rectangle. The Kiss (1960).
And from that she got to her curve paintings – some black and white, others using greys, some playing with blue and green and red and grey. Take Cataract 2 (or 3, because I can find a picture of that one) and see how it refuses to lie flat. Cataract 2 is more like an arrow than this – note the stripes aren’t parallel, are offset.
In one room we see a wall of preparatory sketches, many of them on graph paper, and we consider how carefully the abstract must have been arrived at.
And then, in 1980, she stopped. She moved onto vertical lines.
The deckchair years.
But they didn’t vanish forever, as in 1997 there was a return. Lagoon 2 widens the vertical stripes and interrupts them, if not with curves then with segments of circles. The vertical lines are further disturbed by diagonals. In the area given to studies, we see variants that led to this and similar designs – trying out colours, rearranging segments, working on graph paper and tracing paper. “Lagoon” points us to something more organic than maths, something away from the abstract.
“The relation between the line and the curve can be compared to that between the circle and the oval,” she says in an interview. But it also breaks the apparent flatness of the plane.
The most recent piece in the exhibition I think (despite that 2014 date) is a wall painting, Rajasthan (2012) – red, orange, green, grey and the white of the wall. There’s not the same sense of the breaking of the plane, but there’s the breaking of the frame. Given what I’m currently reading about the (American?) battle between the wall and the easel, this feels timely.
Bexhill’s De La Warr Pavilion is one of my favourite galleries – and in conjunction with the Jedward Jerwood makes a splendid day out. Indeed, although the effect may not work here, I’ve looked at the light-reducing blinds before and thought of them as op art. The Art Deco curves of the building seem to speak to Riley’s curves and the seaside setting seems to speak to some of those curves as sticks of rock (and I’m not entirely joking about the deckchairs, although none were on show here). It is a show to surrender to – even as it takes you over.