Tate St Ives brings us a stunning visual display with its latest exhibition of op artists. EWEN MACDONALD finds himself - almost - moved to tears

Tate St Ives brings us a stunning visual display with its latest exhibition of op artists. EWEN MACDONALD finds himself - almost - moved to tears

Whenever I see terms such as Op Art’ and Kinetic Art’, I generally run a mile. I always tend to think of them as a kind of artworld shtick and I can’t really see their purpose. Not that I’m against art for art’s sake per se, I have no time for girl-meets-tractor, socialist-realist, dogmatic propaganda either.

I’m with the late, great Australian art critic Robert Hughes on the fact that art can’t and won’t change the world and nor should it have too. The purpose of art is myriad and manifold. It is change with a small C and that is change on a human scale.

All of that being said, I find myself entranced by Bridget Riley’s iconic Op Art from the 1960s.

Her 1963 work, Fall dazzles the eye to complete distraction. Like some mad professor of optics, I stood in front of the painting with glasses on, then glasses off, then with sunglasses on, then with sunglasses off. I discover the piece works best with either shades on, or if you’re short sighted, with glasses off.

The difference is that with the light and sharpness of the painting diffused you can appreciate the moments of movement in the work. There are wonderful blurred patches on the canvas which bring into resolution the appearance of nature in the shape of waterfalls. It’s a different experience of Riley and a very revelatory one, in comparison to seeing them as images in a magazine, or on television, because hung on a wall in front of you the painting bends inwards and outwards and becomes totally three dimensional.

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The psychedelic swirling of the swinging 60s gives way to Riley’s 1993 oil on canvas painting Nataraja. In this work the colours are at their utmost remove from 1960s monochrome; greens, blues, reds, purples, pinks and oranges zigzag across the canvas, leading to a less opaque painting which is far easier on the retinas.

Whatever the work, Riley is a most meticulous painter, with a place for every brushstroke and every brushstroke in its place. This is most evidenced in her screenprints on Perspex, the Fragment series of works from 1965. Which look all of their time and yet could be contemporary digital prints.

Sharing the same space as Riley is Liliane Lijn's Koans from 2007/8. These glass fibre, polyester resin, clear Perspex sections with motorised turntable are white spherical cones with light bands moving through them. I felt they would have looked great oversized on the set of a kitsch sci-fi movie with their contradictory futuristic/retrospective look.

In a part of the exhibition very different from the previous space were John Divola's Zuma Beach series of photographs from the late seventies. These dye transfer prints are based on abandoned beach huts, taken at dawn and dusk with use of a flash, producing images which are bathed in a strange, ethereal light.

It was a great revelation enjoying these pictures, which I would have personally shot in a completely opposite way. Through this particular technique Divolas manages to magically compose the images to look like neo-realist paintings by Edward Hopper. He has designed the photographs to give them a flattened and illustrative aesthetic. While they do retain something of a derelict, melancholic feel, because they’re shot in front of the Pacific ocean at Malibu, with its orange sunsets and blue oceans, they have a redeeming, joyful quality also and were perfectly placed gazing out upon Porthmeor beach and the Atlantic surf.

I normally baulk at some worthy art work incorporating the thoughts of the public. My general demeanour is, if the public can do it themselves then why are we paying you.

Yet the most enriching room of the exhibition was Brazilian artist Rivane Neuenschwander’s installation I wish your wish’ which was made up of thousands of specially printed coloured ribbons, each stamped with one of sixty wishes.

What struck me immediately when entering the room, was that the ribbons themselves, hanging from the walls, made up a colourful and aesthetically pleasing space in their own right.

The second thing I realised was how moved I was by the incantations. In a world filled with news of bombs and beheadings, earthquakes and landslides, people in boats drowning and an endlessly, endemic corruption everywhere, the messages on the ribbons were in some measure all positive and universal. To give a flavour of the type of messages here are a few.

I wish to graduate.’

I wish there were more hours in the day for sleeping and playing.’

I wish for a cure.’

I wish for true love.’

I wish for a healthy baby.’

I wish colour, gender and religion didn’t matter.’

I wish Marijuana was legal.’

I wish I wasn’t so hard on myself.’

Visitors are encouraged to pick out a ribbon and wear it until it falls off hence rendering the wish true. My wife picked out, I wish I had a turtle and there were no wars.’ Whereas I plumped for the more abstract and ill-defined, I wish I could change something.’ For all the schmaltz and hippyish flavour that seems entailed in such a project, I found it a beautifully moving and uplifting experience. Which went no small way to reassuring me about the inherent optimism of my fellow human beings.

As I leave the exhibition some old boy resplendent in floppy sun hat and liver spots, opines grumpily, Is that it?’ I suddenly realise what I should have written down as my wish, I wish I don’t turn into a miserable and passionless old man suspicious of anything new and different.’

Maybe art can’t change or save the world, but it can help to change and save the individual.

Tate St Ives Exhibition

Images Moving Out Into Space’

23 May – 27 Sept 2015