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Optics, Pop and Colour: Bridget Riley and Ian Davenport
June 30, 2014
Two galleries in London have heralded the arrival of summer with an exploration of two bold, vibrant British painters. When painting is perceived to be struggling under the weight of the medium’s own ‘death’, these two exhibitions have provided a reminder of what painting can do and what can be (and has been) achieved with the medium. I am, however, slightly biased when it comes to abstract painting, which is perhaps why contemporary painting does not always grab me in the same way. From my previous writings at Candid (‘Is Sensation Dead?’ and ‘The Potential Of Video Art: Spectatorship’) you can safely assume that I prefer works that require something of the viewer or that consider sensation and aesthetics to be a powerful tool. These two shows, therefore, were always going to stand out for me.
For the first time at David Zwirner’s London location, the exhibition will be installed on three floors of the gallery. The show offers a comprehensive look at Bridget Riley’s practice, presenting works from all periods of her career, from 1961 to 2014, including her first stripe paintings in colour. As most of you will be aware Riley’s practice has been dedicated to the exploration of form and colour, which has led to a wider investigation of perception. Although throughout Riley’s career she has used a variety of forms within her paintings, the exhibition at David Zwirner focuses purely on the Stripe Paintings.
For me, the Stripe Paintings are the most effective in terms of affecting the viewer’s perception. The stripes oscillate and start to run towards the floor. This is mesmerizing. Each single stripe combines together to vibrate, causing the painting to shrink, grow or defy gravity. In Bridget Riley’s paintings the viewer is essential. Their perception, their act of looking, is what makes the paintings move. Here I refer to the great philosophical thought problem: “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” A similar question or concept can be applied to Bridget Riley’s Stripe Paintings and the role of the viewer. Within the Stripe Paintings the term participant is a better term to use than viewer. For as well as viewing, whether actively or passively (that topic must be put off until another time), they also participate, contributing to the painting. For without their gaze and their perception, the paintings would not create their perceptual tricks. This can only be initiated by the perception of the participant.
The second exhibition is Ian Davenport: Colourfall at Waddington Custot Gallery. Aside from producing abstract paintings, often with stripes, the other quality the artists share is colour. Both are renowned for their bold, vibrant works and in these two shows that characteristic is on display. The exhibition at Waddington Custot presents recent work by Davenport as well as paintings from the last 25 years. Works from his most famous series, the poured paint, feature in the exhibition. Davenport takes his inspiration from a wide variety of sources, from John Cage to urban environments. The most outstanding aspect of the exhibition as well as his overall practice is how impactful the works are. The visual impact is not to be underestimated (as I discussed in my first Candid article “Is Sensation Dead?”). At Waddington Custot I was in awe of these works, from the manipulation of paint to the brilliance of the colour. I expected to see examples of Davenport’s poured paint works and since it was my first time seeing them in the flesh, I was blown away. I was however, surprised by Davenport’s other works in the exhibition. They were far more visually restrained than the poured pieces, although still demonstrated the same level of knowledge and skill when it comes to manipulating paint. The works were also incredibly glossy and dominated by a single bold and in some cases, very bright colour. Of these works, the brighter ones are preferable. The most outstanding was a large, bright pink painting, which dominated one wall of the gallery. The only mark on the silky surface was a series of thin black lines forming several arches.
Within both shows; Ian Davenport: Colourfall and Bridget Riley: The Stripe Paintings, as well as the wider practices of the two artists, showcase aspects of art that I personally rank very highly: sensation and a consideration of the viewer and their role. In Bridget Riley’s Stripe Paintings, the viewer/participant is a crucial protagonist in the story of work. They transform the painting from a flat surface into a bubbling, writhing, shifting river of painted lines; into an event. In Davenport’s work the viewer is placed in front of these paintings, there can often seem to be very little on the surface of his work, especially the minimalist glossy pieces which are almost like a painted Donald Judd: smooth, clean and restrained. However Davenport seems to want you to dig a little deeper, to immerse yourself in the colour, to follow the clean lines, to look at the marks and wonder how they were made. Like many ‘simple’ artworks they are deceptively so. Davenport’s work is immensely impressive, dominated by a powerful visual aesthetic, but as I have discussed previously, this effect should not be underestimated.
It could be argued that I have, within the choice of these two exhibitions, been very narrow in my selection: both are painters, both are abstract; both are beyond ‘contemporary’. Yet just because something has become ‘non-contemporary’, ‘modernist’ or ‘old’ doesn’t suddenly mean that its impact ceases or it becomes irrelevant. These ‘older’ artists, movements and styles can still be used, worked from and inspired from. I would love to see more ‘respected’ works being juxtaposed with new works and new artists who aren’t afraid to work from or with ‘dated’ works whilst addressing ‘contemporary’ art and its concerns as well. Sometimes I fear we are guilty of respecting art’s ‘elders’ too quickly and therefore not working with, or reinterpreting, their concerns. I’m not saying that we should all start working with abstract painting, there are ways to explore these concerns within contemporary art and this doesn’t mean we abandon contemporary concerns, not at all, but rather recognize that there can be a mixture of inspirations from ‘old’ and ‘contemporary’ and that both are valid.
Words by Jessica Bunyard.
Ian Davenport: Colourfall is installed at Waddington Custot until 12th July, for more information go to – waddingtoncustot.com/exhibitions/89/press_release
Bridget Riley: The Stripe Paintings 1961 – 2014 is on at David Zwirner until 25th July, for more information go to – davidzwirner.com/exhibition/bridget-riley