Executed in 1985, Bright Shade illuminates Riley's groundbreaking investigations into the optical potential of colour. The uncompromising rectangular canvas plane is articulated by alternating vertical stripes of vivid orange, pink, green, red, blue and yellow, which, when viewed from afar, create a dazzling chromatic experience. As the spectator's eye is drawn across the surface, the bands appear to constrict towards the centre, concentrating the energy and dynamism into the vital central axis of the arrangement. Close up, the colours distort into sparkling iridescence, and where bands of pigment meet, new colours emerge. This chromatic fusion gives the viewer the impression of light radiating from the painting's core, bringing a third dimension to our experience of the work.
As a student, Riley copied Seurat's Le Pont de Courbevoie (1886-87, Courtauld Gallery) from a reproduction. Rejecting his meticulous pointillist technique, she instead concentrated on the artist's systematic distillation of colour and his balanced use of complementaries to delineate light, shade, depth and form. Bright Shade includes echoes of this early exploration of colour, whilst also incorporating the vigorous structural emphasis of her black and white paintings. She stated: "I had to give visual sensation more rein – my black and white paintings had been about states of being, states of composure and disturbance, but when I introduced colour in 1967, this began to change. Colour inevitably leads you to the world outside[..]" (Bridget Riley, Dialogues on Art, London 1995, p.70).
In the winter of 1979-80, Riley travelled to Egypt where she visited the Nile Valley and the Pharoah tombs in the Valley of the Kings. Inspired by the art which adorned ancient burial sites, Riley was especially drawn to the symbolic use of five colours, which represented aspects of Egyptian life. The present painting is from the body of work made in the years following her travels, where Riley harnessed a range of intense hues – her 'Egyptian palette' – within a formal linear arrangement. With Bright Shade, Riley engenders a dialogue between the formal structure of the stripes and notions of weight, density, brilliance and opacity. Constructive rather than descriptive, Riley's use of colour exploits its inherent instability, allowing her the freedom to create the visual interactions which would go on to dominate her work for the next decade.
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