‘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’
(B. Riley, quoted in ‘The Pleasures of Sight’, in B. Riley, The Eye’s Mind: Bridget Riley, Collected Writings 1965-1999, London 1999, p. 32).
Painted in 1980, Bridget Riley’s Ka 2 is part of a series of paintings that heralded not only a new palette for the artist but subsequently a structural reorganisation of her work. The Ka paintings, meaning ‘spirit’ in Egyptian, were directly inspired by her travels to Egypt one year earlier during which time she studied the tombs of the Pharaohs in the Valley of the Kings. Riley was astonished by the art she found in these ancient burial sites and even more so by the limited number of colours – red, blue, yellow, turquoise, green, black and white – that achieved a vivid evocation of life and light. While visiting the various Cairo Museums, Riley noted that the same shades had also been used in all aspects of the Egyptians’ lives, from decorative to purely functional. Deeply struck by these colours, she began to explore this ‘Egyptian-Palette’ on her return to London. Painted in vertical stripes of cool blues, dusky pink, turquoise, and saffron yellow, Ka 2 expresses both the spirit of the country and the vividness of her transformative experience in the ancient tombs. As with Riley’s early work, Ka 2 is punctuated by black stripes at three select intervals, splitting the other stripes into distinct groupings and structuring the work into its aesthetically taut and visually satisfying form.
Recreating the colours from her memory, Riley used oil paint as her medium in order to attain the necessary saturation and density of colour. This profound change in Riley’s palette also brought about a change in the formal structure of her work, marking the end of the curved paintings she had been working on prior to her trip. A paradigm shift in her practice, she felt the more straightforward pattern of simple stripes was necessary to support the intensity of colour she had introduced. Riley commented, ‘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 and build, with the relationships it demands, a plastic fabric that has no other raison d’être except to accommodate the sensation it solicits’ (B. Riley, quoted in Bridget Riley: Paintings and drawings 1961-2004, exh. cat., Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, 2005, p. 21).
Reflecting the very soul of Egypt, the Ka series make clear that Riley’s works are not merely psychological experiments in colour relationships, but penetrating visual presentations about the world and human experience.