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A set of 4 prints, each containing 19 different grey hues, 19 Greys show Riley in her element, forcing us to question our own visual perception. In this suite, Riley’s precise and ordered arrangement of oval shapes interact with precise variations in luminosity, colour and geometry, which bring the artist’s thematisation of the mechanisms of the screen print process into sharp focus. The frenetic interplay of order and disorder within each piece implores the viewer to reflect on how vision is inherently deceptive.
The series embodies Riley’s vision of screen printing as the ideal process for her optically challenging images. The works’ mode of production enables Riley, as a painter, to achieve uniformity and consistency of colour in her mark-making. Painting, as a medium, can fail to deliver the precise shifts in light and shade which Riley’s work often demands. In each of the works in this series, the interplay between the shades of warm grey and ovals of cold grey offsets the grid of ovals to achieve a visceral sense of optical disruption. The artist’s rejection of painting’s potential for tonal inaccuracy allows for the production of compelling and unyielding illusions.
The beckoning to experience the tension between the works’ structure and the sensations they provoke evinces Riley’s utopian vision of art as a fundamentally social experience, whereby the viewer completes the artist’s act of creation. Each viewer’s unique sensory experience (often described as a feeling akin to seasickness or skydiving) defies the regimented reproductive quality of the print medium. Much like in Current (1964), there is a confusion of background and foreground. Are we witnessing ovals printed over a darker background or a porous layer printed atop a lighter background? This uncertainty adds to the sense of unease and furthers the dialogue between artist and viewer, with the work as interlocutor.
Perhaps distilling what Riley admired in the work of the pointillists, Georges Seurat in particular, the Nineteen Greys series produces a sensation in the viewer which alludes to primal feelings that resist intellectualisation, akin to those which drive the act of creation in the first place. In Riley’s own words, “those fleeting sensations which pass unrecognised by the intellect are just as important as those which become conscious.”
Produced in the late ’60s, when Riley was on the cusp of a thorough and bold exploration of colour, this series’ monochromatic potency places the tension between mode of production and visual sensation centre stage, making it a vital moment in the career of this giant of Op Art.