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Lux Non Aeterna: The Fleeting Light Works Of Richard Wright
John Quin , September 3rd, 2022 08:21

2009's Turner Prize winner floods Glasgow's Modern Institute with irridescence

This is Rebecca Solnit writing in Orwell’s Roses, her recent book on the more bucolic side of the master: “Art that is not (italics mine) about the politics of this very moment may reinforce a sense of self and society, of values and commitments, or even a capacity to pay attention, that equip a person to meet the crises of the day”. In contrast much of today’s art is indeed very focused on the current political disasters – witness the ongoing Documenta 15 in Kassel and its heavy weather, its angst. So how should we deal with contemporary work that appears, uh, unaligned? Can such artworks help us deal with the seemingly endless round of calamities in the news? What is there to say about an artist whose prime interest is in the aesthetic effects of light and space, whose fascination with the ephemeral nature of optics might seem trivial, insubstantial? How can an artist like Richard Wright, who works with light, arm our defences?

Solnit argues that we need refuge and that art that may appear disengaged can fortify us. She argues for “pleasure that is beauty, the beauty that is meaning, order, calm”. Wright provides such fresh enjoyment with the three works in his new Glasgow show, the most immediate being Untitled (all works, 2022). The large windows of the gallery space have been replaced by Wright’s giant construction. This is a site-responsive work in that it relies for much of its impact on the effects of the morning sun as it streams refracted light through thousands of leaded glass pieces fitted into a metal frame. The design is complex and might be compared to the chitin scales on a butterfly’s wings. Iridescence is what this work is about, its varieties of green shimmering teases the eye with its pine tones, its pistachio shadings, its limes.

If you are there at the right time the shadowing on the white floor of the gallery gives an additional rippling, aqueous, glow. There’s a tension between the obvious craftsmanship of the design, its laborious execution, and the transitory delights of the reflections. You stare and imagine a snowy, leafy, forest floor or conjure the calm of an old church with its patterning of stained glass. There’s a secular unworldliness at work. We can retreat into Wright’s domestic, natural, space and, if you like, find anchorage, find temporary escape from the madness of Putin and Trump, inflation and Brexit. Refreshed, like Solnit’s Orwell, we can, as she says: “go to war on lies, delusions, cruelties, and follies”. Well, one can only hope…

Elsewhere there are two works on paper. Both are abstractions, lined affairs. The first – No title – uses poster colour and enamel. From a distance, the predominant tones appear to be maroon and mint green. Get up close though and a red and white chequered section jumps out. Closer still and you make out thin bands of horizontal lines in blue and red, green and white, that resemble strands of DNA illustrated in biology textbooks. Details keep blinding you with their intricacies and shapes appear like the figure 4 and letter L’s. The planes here slip and tickle the brain – imagine an infinitely complex mutation of Bridget Riley’s work.

Lastly there’s No title (6.4.2022), another poster colour and enamel on paper. Here, if anything, the patterning effects of lines are more baroque and confusing. Some of the bandings are horizontal, others vertical, and widths vary. The predominant colours this time are Newcastle United black and white, that and a patch of Coventry City sky blue. Proximity intensifies the migraine-like fortification spectra, a phenomenon known to neurologists as teichopsia, a zigzagging jagged effect, that some may find unpleasant. This is the work that most tested my occipital cortex and I shied away lest it gave me a headache. Others might delight in following the arrowings and pathways, or enjoy the seemingly infinite zebra crossings, the endless lines of Everton mints.

Wright’s designs are not for everyone. He’s not after perfection. His relaxed attitude to the limited life of his wall paintings is well known. Permanence – to return to Solnit on Orwell – “the idea of stabilizing something, which is usually predicated on controlling a lot of things” is part of what Orwell (and Wright one suspects) object to. Wright’s effects of light through all those panes of leaded glass cannot, as with Solnit’s interpretation of Orwell’s anti-Utopianism, be fixed, be controlled. They are “in essence fluid and uncontrollable, like desire, like joy”.

Orwell wrote that “all art is to some extent propaganda”. As Solnit argues this is true “insofar as propaganda is advocacy … a kind of advocacy for what matters, what deserves attention”. For Wright what matters is looking carefully. He asks us politely, gracefully, to stare, to peer closer. So with all that in mind, get along before noon. The early bird and all that…

Richard Wright is on at the Modern Institute, Glasgow until 3 September