‘The pleasures of sight have one characteristic in common – they take you by surprise. They are sudden, swift and unexpected. If one tries to prolong them, recapture them or bring them about wilfully their purity and freshness is lost. They are essentially enigmatic and elusive’
Immersing the viewer in a shimmering cascade of colour, Java (1983) is a captivating large-scale vision from Bridget Riley’s ‘Egyptian palette’. Slim ribbons of lavender, teal, terracotta, green, ochre and off-white pulse together in a field of entrancing chromatic interplay. The eye dances from hue to hue as through strafing beams of light. As Riley has written, ‘Each band has a clear identity. Step back and the colours begin to interact, further away still a field of closely modulated harmonies cut by strong contrasts opens up’ (B. Riley, ‘Work’, in Bridget Riley: Flashback, exh. cat. Hayward Gallery, London 2009, p. 17). Riley’s profound understanding of the contingent and unstable nature of colour, which changes relative to its surroundings, allows her to compose a perceptual paradise. Arranging her bands according to a planned empirical process using movable strips of coloured paper, Riley anticipates our visual experience. The work’s intense colours, inspired by the painted tombs of ancient Egypt, demand a clean formal structure: Java’s simple stripes scintillate in gorgeous optical fusion, singing a rhythm of radiance and repose that gestures beautifully to the wonder of the world around us.
Riley travelled to Egypt in the winter of 1979- 80, where she studied the tombs of the later Pharaohs in the Valley of the Kings. As Paul Moorhouse writes, ‘Riley was astonished by the art she found in these ancient burial sites carved out of rock and located deep in the earth. These sacred places were dedicated to the dead, yet the tomb decoration was a vivid evocation of life and light. Though their creators had used only a limited number of colours – red, blue, yellow, turquoise, green, black and white – the walls of the chambers receded behind images in which could be seen a bustling affirmation of everyday existence. In looking at the art and craft of Ancient Egypt in the Cairo Museum, Riley recognised that the same colours had been used in all aspects of the Egyptians’ material lives, from the decorative to the purely functional’ (P. Moorhouse, ‘A Dialogue with Sensation: the Art of Bridget Riley’, in Bridget Riley, exh. cat. Tate Britain, London 2003, p. 22). Upon her return to London, the artist resolved to explore this rich array of colours from memory, and began to use collaged strips of painted paper as a way of adjusting, altering and shifting their configurations. Having spent recent years investigating intricate curvilinear forms, Riley realised that this new palette required a more straightforward vehicle. ‘If I wanted to make colour a central issue, I had to give up the complexities of form with which I had been working. In the straight line I had one of the most fundamental forms. The line has direction and length, it lends itself to simple repetition and by its regularity it simultaneously supports and counteracts the fugitive, fleeting character of colour. Although Seurat’s dot is comparable in its simplicity, my line has fractionally more going for it’ (B. Riley, ‘Work’, in Bridget Riley: Flashback, exh. cat. Hayward Gallery, London 2009, p. 17).
As her enchantment with the tombs of Egypt makes clear, Riley’s work – though abstract – is not entirely non-referential. The five colours of Java evoke the tomb paintings’ paradoxical life and vivacity. This energy is heightened by the lyrical and gently suggestive title, which gestures to an atmosphere of luxuriant, tropic warmth. Distilled from such sources, however, the work’s most important aspect is as a sensual fabric in and of itself. In this sense, Riley’s stripe paintings were something of a watershed for the artist. ‘Right up to, and in some ways including, the stripe paintings I used to build up to sensation, accumulating tension until it released a perceptual experience that flooded the whole as it were. Now I try to take sensation as the guiding line and build, with the relationships it demands, a plastic fabric which has no other raison d’être except to accommodate the sensations it elicits’ (B. Riley, ‘According to Sensation: in Conversation with Robert Kudielka’, 1990, in The Eye’s Mind: Bridget Riley, Collected Writings 1965-1999, London 1999, p. 79). Through this seamless structural realignment, form and content are allied and our very ways of seeing brought subtly to the fore. Riley’s unique optical mastery, honed in monochrome, sees a brilliant new world of potential opened in the release into colour. As Riley recalls, ‘I had given up the complexity of form in my Black and White paintings, but I found that the principles that lay behind them – contrast, harmony, reversal, repetition, movement, rhythm, etc. – could be recast in colour and with a new freedom’ (B. Riley, ‘Work’, in Bridget Riley: Flashback, exh. cat. Hayward Gallery, London 2009, p. 17).