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Brigitte Riley
As a portrait painter, I've always held to the feeling that portraits are the most demanding area of art there is for the realistic painter. I'm sure that painters specialising in other realistic pursuits would probably argue with me on this. And, I suppose, I might be persuaded by a really outstanding presentation that maybe tromp l'oeil still-lifes might be more difficult. Of course in either case I might be a tad bit biased, having done both. To the other extreme, in the area of non-representational art, my personal feeling is that the debate might be a little more cut and dried. All one has to do is take a look at the work of the British painter Brigitte Riley to see my point. Op Art, as it's called, would win hands down.

Consider Fall. Painted in 1963, it's a wonder that Riley didn't go blind. Certainly more than a few viewers have come to question their eyesight in seeing it. Strangely enough, it (and related works) is unique in the fact that, though painted strictly in black and white, they are works in which our eyes often see subtle colours. The painting works because of the undulating precision of the dozens of carefully spaced black lines that rhythmically snake vertically up and down the canvas. Abstract artists talk often about the physical and emotional sensations they hope to exact from their viewers. I'm not sure about emotions in this case, but she certainly incites physical sensations. Nausea and vertigo come to mind.

Yet, it's all cold, calculated, hard science. Op works because of the physiological phenomena known as retinal fatigue. Our eyes can only take so much. When overwhelmed by repeated patterns such as this artist produces, they cop out and begin sending to the brain false patterns of movement and yes, of colour where in fact, there is neither. We're most familiar with this in the fact that when deluged with images approaching 24 per second, the optical senses give up trying to discern individual pictures and report movement instead. Of course in today's video-rich world, maybe we're not all that familiar with this trait. We take it for granted.

Brigitte Riley was born in 1931 in London where she grew up knowing the worst terrors of the WW II bombing blitz. After the war she studied at Goldsmith's College of Art and then at the Royal College of Art. She was forced to quit school before graduating however to care for her father. Riley studied in depth the Pointillist works of Seurat and was also influenced by Victor Vasarely, often considered the "inventor" of Op Art. Her first efforts in Op Art were inspired while travelling in Italy in 1960. There, in an Italian piazza, she observed the results of a thunderstorm passing over the black and white tile patterns. For several years her painting efforts were limited to black and white creations.

Later trips to Egypt introduced her to the use of colour in her optical exercises. In 1968, she won the Grand Prize for Painting at the Venice Biennale. One of her 1980s works involved the colour scheme for the hallways of the Liverpool Royal Hospital. Her repeating bands of soft, pastel colours had the effect of all but eliminating vandalism in that institution. Her 1992 painting, Conversation illustrates her ability to excite the eyes using hard-edged colour juxtapositions. Is this the most challenging form of non-representational art? Look at her work. I'm sold. What about you?

Contributed by Lane, Jim
23 December 2001

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