N is for “You’re Getting Very Sleepy…”

| May 3, 2014

I’ve always loved Op Art without knowing exactly why. There’s obviously the pleasurably hypnotic quality that appeals on a psycho-optic level – the feeling of spatial disorientation and multidimensionality that runs counter to what you know consciously to be a flat image.

Gaze into the void!

The multidimensional nature evoked in [Op Art pioneer Bridget Riley’s] aesthetic was designed to be experienced by the viewer in a precognitive, embodied fashion. In this there are strong echoes with the call made by nonrepresentational theorists who operationalize the same kind of cosmology to develop an evocative, creative account of the world… Both Op Art and nonrepresentational thought seem to build upon a shift in the representational register that occurred during the immediate postwar period, one which prompted representational practices which attempted to subjectify rather than objectify, to evoke instability and multidimensionality, and to exercise not only visual, oral, and cognitive ways of knowing, but also the precognitive and the haptic. The complex correlations between representation and nonrepresentation are apparent here, suggesting that it is problematic to emphasize one side of the duality over the other.”

Rycroft S, 2005, “The nature of Op Art: Bridget Riley and the art of nonrepresentation” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 23(3) 351 – 371

Precognitive… yes, that’s it! There’s something about these images that appeals to the brain before you even get a chance to process it, to ‘judge’ it. I’m reminded as well of Ad Reinhardt’s cruciforms – big dark canvases, with black cruciforms on black backgrounds.

One of Ad Reinhardt's Cruciforms - they take a while to come off the canvas.

At first, when you approach one of these canvases in a low-lit gallery, the painting seems monochromatic, but as you patiently gaze, the image seems to burn itself into your eyes, to emerge off the canvas. It’s a really nice reward for spending some time with the image. There’s a lot of commentary about what it means (e.g. “these paintings ask if there can be such a thing as an absolute, even in black, which some viewers may not consider a color at all.”), but again, there’s a simply pre-cognitive pleasure to the experience of engaging the canvas, like a warm bath for the eyes.

Behold, the hypnotic power of Op Art!