I went to see the Tuner Prize shortlist (the annual award for visual artists) in 2013, the year the exhibition was in Derry. At one of the installations I was given £1 for engaging in a conversation about what constitutes ‘progress’. The payment was part of the art. Really?! Although I claimed my pound, I remained sceptical. I couldn’t understand for the life of me how it was art, even in its broadest form. Not unless we say that every tiny moment of every day is art and, well, I’m not going to go down that road. To steal from Keats, ‘the truth of imagination’ is what art is; it is an expression of truth. And the observer may not recognise it as their truth but if it is the artist’s truth then it is art. And how are we to know if the artist is being authentic and true to herself or not? I think we know instinctively. I think that when art connects to the viewer, when it resonates in one’s heart, then it has reached its point of truth. Simple.
I am a second viewing person. I fare better from going back for another look. The first viewing tells me what I think. The second viewing tells me what I feel. For art is more than visual. I can feel the chaos and futility seethe from Picasso’s Guernica. I can feel the heat and stillness emanate from Monet’s Giverny. I can feel the loneliness and despondency of being alone in Hopper’s midnight diner. And I can feel the traitor-fuelled terror of Christ being taken by the guards into Caravaggio’s darkness. And those are just some of the famous ones, the conventional canvases touring the big galleries. For what about the art of the landscape? The abandoned quarry that pockmarks a lonely spot in the northern Cheviots? A diseased ash on the edge of an East Lothian field, its silver skeletal frame against a clear sky? The patina of peeling paint layers on the shutter of a disused warehouse in Leith? The accidental art of nature is just as commanding.
My head is spinning with thoughts about art because I have just been to see the Bridget Riley exhibition in Edinburgh and she is playing with my mind and rattling my brain. Hers are abstract paintings that move and dance and spin. One was like a black hole, aswirling vortex that made my body rock uneasily. ‘We’re all in this together,’ it said to me, ‘together in a miasma, in a whorl of madness.’ I step back from it, afraid of becoming pulled in. It tells me that life’s a tornado; lose yourself and you’ll be sucked up like Dorothy without a pair of red shoes to take you home. Like Escher, Riley goes all-out in black and white, and, like Escher, she is mathematical in her precision – lines and arrows sloped at exact angles and degrees so that the image moves and turns and pops from the canvas in three dimensions. Changing my mind, I decide it’s not a black hole after all – it’s a potter’s wheel, until it becomes a roundabout in a children’s playground, and then it’s a monochrome kaleidoscope.
I move to another painting, less than a wave but more than a ripple. The moguls on a ski run perhaps, the drumlins of County Down or the concertina folds of a bunched up carpet that gets caught behind the door. Undulations in blue and red and white that make my eyes dance if I look upon it for too long. My heart becomes giddy. I’m thrown off balance, like I have just stepped off a boat after hours at sea, or if I suddenly stand still after whirling child around by the ankles, like I used to do with T. when he was three – ‘more, more!’ he would shout, staggering towards me like a miniature drunken sailor.
‘I want to bring about some fresh way of seeing,’ Riley says, ‘that thrill of pleasure which sight itself reveals.’ And that’s what she has achieved from the truth of her imagination. I loved them: they made me see and feel on a first viewing. I wonder what they will do to me on the second?