Lots Of Dots But Not Enough Ambition In The Bridget Riley Exhibition At Hayward Gallery

Bridget Riley, Hayward Gallery ★★☆☆☆

Lots Of Dots But Not Enough Ambition In The Bridget Riley Exhibition At Hayward Gallery Bridget Riley, Hayward Gallery 2
© Bridget Riley 2019 Photo: Stephen White & Co

A circle of chevrons starts to move as if it's suddenly been animated, a row of spots collapses in on itself and coloured stripes shimmer as they bleed into one another. None of this is actually happening, but they are the optical effects that are triggered when looking at Bridget Riley's trippy paintings.

Hayward Gallery has put on this colourful feast for the eyes, covering 70 years of Riley's career — visitors are surrounded by the abstract patterns that fill her works. It sounds like the kind of immersive art-fest that should be right up my street, so why does it feel so underwhelming?

Even the large works feel boxed in. © Bridget Riley 2019 Photo: Stephen White & Co

It's because the majority of the paintings are on canvases hanging on the walls, it's not very immersive when these works are contained within neat rectangles — they should be spreading across the walls and spiralling up the stairs. It's like going on safari and finding all the animals locked in cages — the voice inside my head screams that these works need to be set free.  

Even when the works are on walls they are presented as if they are locked within some invisible frame that we can't see. Yes the works play tricks with my eyes, creating phantom pale dots on my retina, but why can't they wrap around a staircase like they do at The National Gallery?

© Bridget Riley 2019 Photo: Stephen White & Co

The one exception is a work that you walk into and it coils in on itself, with stripes on the wall getting closer and farther apart. It creates a wonderful dizzying effect that is lacking throughout the rest of the show.

There's not much variety to her work with a small section dedicated to her early years featuring figurative drawings and a dalliance with Pointillism. It wasn't long before she switched to her trademark abstract works that fill the majority of this exhibition.   

Compared to something as magical as a Kusama infinity room, this all feels a little tame — though it didn't have to be and it's only a lack of ambition in exhibition design that's holding it back. Newcomers to Riley's work may well enjoy the jazzy colours and the optical illusions, but I can't get past thinking how much bigger and better this show should have been.

Bridget Riley at Hayward Gallery is on until 26 January. Tickets are £18 for adults.

Last Updated 28 October 2019