It is between the dialectical fray of composition and perception that Riley situates her work. Her early output is exemplified by monochromatic paintings such as Fall (1963), housed in the Tate collection: channelling the dynamism of a descending line into a concentrated, spiralling pattern of motion in black and white, this work demonstrates, primarily, the evocation of movement through form. Riley’s mature style, by contrast, is characterised by vibrant, effervescing colour. Following an influential trip to Egypt in the winter of 1979-80, Riley’s synthesis of colour, composition and sensory unpredictability became refined, vivid, and more closely aligned with the field of colour theory and phenomenology. This is gracefully embodied in the pulsating stripes of Midi. Art historian Richard Shiff describes Riley’s evocation of the limits of perception thusly: “perception is alive. Wrestling with it, attempting to coordinate thought and sensation, we have no guarantee of success, as either artist or viewer… Riley’s respect for perception allows her to enter into dialogue with her own artistic process. Her work is very precise, like that of the Op artists with whom critics once associated her; but she never experiences total control of her vision. Nor would she wish to. The effects she seeks inhabit an illusive medium” (Richard Shiff, ‘Bridget Riley: The edge of animation’ in: Exh. Cat., London, Tate Britain, Bridget Riley, 2003, p. 84). The precision that characterises Riley’s flawless technique provides a static architecture through which the artist is able to engage the complex experience of sight as a central concern of her practice. In the present work, the rigid logic of Riley’s vertical arrangement misleads the eye, generating a visual sensation that oscillates between the ‘plastic’ neutrality of the stripe and the optical brilliance of her colour palette.
Evoking the colours of a radiant summer’s day, the deceptively simple formality of Midi produces a powerful visual experience that Riley has always associated with her childhood memories of Cornwall. The horizon lines of sea and sky, reflections upon water, woods, valleys and coastline instilled in the artist an awareness of a landscape that was constructed of sequential passages of form and colour, appearing to the viewer as the innate, natural character of perception. In a spectacular rhythm of peace, orange, green, lilac and white, Midi engenders a harmonious structure that is analogous with the relationship between the component parts of a piece of music. This aggregation of high and low tones, of loud and quiet pitches, creates a field of vision that hums with a warm, self-generated glow. For Riley, suspending incongruent colours and polarising frameworks is the essence of aesthetic harmony: “this could sound like a paradox”, she writes, “but only if one thinks in logical terms. In painting, it seems to me, contrast is the basic relationship. Even that which appears to be harmony is actually a harmony of contrasts, be they spatial, directional, chromatic, tonal, etc.” (Bridget Riley in conversation with Robert Kudielka in: Robert Kudielka on Bridget Riley: Essays and interviews 1972-2003, London 2005, p. 96). In the present work, Riley composes a melodic unity through bands of colour that refract and funnel a cacophony of shifting sightlines between its vertical linearity. A paradigmatic work of pulsating geometry and colour, Riley's Midi is a compelling vision of abstract painting's closeness to human perception.
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