Sunday, 20 April 2008

COMMENTARY: 'Zephyr' by Bridget Riley

Commissioned (Unpublished due to Copyright Issues): Manchester Confidential, April 2008
What and Where: Zephyr at the Manchester Art Gallery
Date: 1976
Artist: Bridget Riley 
Who’s she?

Named the ‘math book muse’, Bridget Riley is one of Britain’s most famous artists. Born 1931, Riley was a pioneering artist in the Op Art movement of the swinging 60’s. Op Art moved away from traditional forms of representation and focused, not on presenting the subject as it was to a passive viewer, but in creating a thought process with the audience through non-representational geometrical shapes and patterns. Originally from London, but growing up in Cornwall, Riley’s work is heavily influenced by her experiences of nature as a child, especially her more organic wave pieces to which Zephyr belongs.

Zephyr, what on earth is that?

The Greek God of the West wind. Zephyr was the wind of the coming spring and therefore rather a fertile and promiscuous fellow. Notorious for killing Hyacinth out of mad jealousy, when the beautiful and sporting Spartan prince dismissed him and instead chose Apollo for his lover. Zephyr was also reported to have had several wives, including his sister Iris and the Goddess Chloris, whom he married after first raping her. Lovely chap.

Often depicted as a personified winged young man in Classical and Renaissance art, including Botticelli’s famous painting ‘La Primavera’, Bridget Riley’s depiction is ever so slightly more abstract.

Tell me more.

Zephyr, consisting solely of hard lined, ordered waves and painted impeccably with acrylic, is a beautiful and calm piece to behold. The pale matt blue, pink and green curved lines interplay with each other to create a serene composition, (I think here Riley is showing us the wind God at his less rampageous and more gentle breeze blowing behaviour). What makes the piece so interesting is that Riley subject is something normally not visible to the human eye. Wind, like a ghost, is only seen through its impressions on physical objects – trees moving, plastic bags blown down the street; yet her totally abstract image expresses what it is to experience this. It feels like a gentle summer breeze. Looking at the canvas the influence of nature is evident; water, summer and sunlight are all present. The colours and evocative curves emit a warm light, which holds emotional resonance and creates a sense of recognition within the viewer.

That’s odd, why’s it moving?

If you stand a few metres from Riley’s work, the lines and colours merge and pulse before your eyes, like ripples on water. The paint seems to come to life, animated and writhing. This happens because the calculations of space between the lines and curves on the canvas, work to create optical illusions in the eye’s retina. This creates a tension within the piece, the movements of the lines are rhythmical and suggest a continuous movement even once you have walked away – a beating heart. This results in the work of art becoming the space in between the painting and the viewer, the scientific and visual process of optical phenomena, which bestows a visible role and partnership between the painting and the audience. In order for the artwork to take effect, the viewer is needed.

What does it all mean?

Zephyr turns thought in to physicality. Riley produces a physical sensation through her work. It makes your perception change and your body sway with unease. As with other pieces of optical art, Zephyr challenges our way of knowing. It makes us perceive and feel movement and colours that aren’t actually there or happening. The paint and canvas are still, the colours clearly different when standing before it. As Bridget Riley herself explains, her work creates ’recognition of the sensation without the actual incident which prompted it’. Along with her other work, Zephyr attempts to dissect the visual experience, the process of observation.

Standing before this piece in the Manchester Art Gallery is a disorientating and curious experience not to be missed. Bridget Riley plays with the aesthetic of illusion to startling effect.

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