There should be a health warning attached to this brief retrospective of Bridget Riley’s stripe paintings: ‘may induce nausea’. From the moment you enter the gallery, the huge, multicoloured works start to do funny things to your vision, creating wavy interference patterns and strobing sensations, shimmering and pulsating before your eyes. The harder you stare, the more you try to penetrate the works’ optical effects, the more they seem to disrupt your perception, until your gaze becomes lost in a hazy, decidedly queasy sort of fug.
Feelings of seasickness aside, the whole point of Riley’s dazzling stripes is to challenge the very act of looking – to question whether a painting exists beyond our distorted visual experience of it; to demonstrate the impossibility of ever truly viewing a colour in isolation from the effects of neighboring colours. Not that all of the 83 year-old painter’s work features stripes, by any means. But, ever since her earliest op art works of the ‘60s, it’s her stripe paintings which have best conveyed this sense of perceptual impurity, of boundaries being blurred. Which is, of course, ironic: go up close to any of her vertically or horizontally striped canvasses, and you couldn’t ask for a more perfect, crisper delineation between patches of colour. Step back just a bit, though, and the edges between contrasting hues immediately seem to ripple and warp.
For such a simple, almost elemental motif as stripes, the sheer variety on display is fascinating – from the dizzying fizz of an early, black-and-white piece, through later ‘60s works where Riley experiments with graduated tones, to mid-career pieces that feature mathematical permutations of bolder colours. Only the most recent pieces are a slight disappointment: not because the protrusion of acidic blues and greens against receding yellow-pinks isn’t powerfully disorientating, but simply because the works are too many and too similar, their effects becoming familiar far too quickly.