imperfect geometry: Belvedere - Stephen Riley. resin, pigment, stones and acrylic on board

Artists who paint circles


My friend showed me an image of an art show – in Bruton, I think – featuring circle paintings. Her point was that here was someone, nearby, making paintings very similar to my own. Indeed, at first glance, looking only on a phone, it could almost have been one of my exhibitions, but then I looked more closely.

Snooker and football are both played with a ball or balls on a green surface. The object in both cases is to get the ball(s) into a loose net, held in shape by a frame. However, getting close, or even standing back, there is little, objectively, the same in the experience of playing or even watching the games. Similarly, end-on, a rugby ball is more or less round, like a football, but viewed from the side it is very different and has very different implications for the way it is used in play.

In a comparable way, when I got to look closely at the artist’s work in the picture on my friend’s phone, it was very different from mine. The work in the photographs was elegant and mandala-like. Mine isn’t. A friend with hippy views – Melody Austin – once told me that she saw my work, because of the use of circles, as an effort to bring a sense of balance to my life, which was pretty much in a state of meltdown at the time. In a subsequent AN Magazine review of my work, Melody used the term ‘restless’ to describe the content of my circles. This is at odds with the notion of transcendent peace in a mandala or equivalent, and I think this is a good point of departure from which to explain the difference between these two lots of work. I do hope the other artist, whom I have not met and whose name I do not know, will forgive the assumptions necessary to explore this further.

I arrived at using circles not out of a desire to represent tranquillity, but out of an interest in materials and entropy: things coming apart, not coming together. The circle is a site for exploration; it holds in, gives shape to, what tends towards an uncontrolled eruption of media.

The starting point for all this was the coming together of two things: making different types of paint react with each other, to create what looked like a seared surface – my first such works, in the early 1990s, were inspired by the scorched buildings of Nagasaki – and the fact that poured paint tends to create a circle, but one which is never perfect; it always skews to one side or another.

Whilst I don’t think my work is in any way literal, this combination of factors reflected things I was interested in, such as the contradiction between humankind’s desire to create perfection - to build a better world - and its seemingly limitless capacity for mind-boggling violence. Indeed, the more technologically advanced a society becomes, the greater is its capacity for, and generally use of, violence. Therefore, what I often explore in my work is the tension between the perfection of (theoretical) geometry and the disruptive possibilities of the painted surface; or between the rigidity and linearity of modern architecture and the organic-ness of the forces that challenge it, be they explosions or the slow weathering of wind and rain; or between the desire to keep one's life in order and the abuses life throws at us, pulling us towards chaos.

Having said all that, this other artist and myself are hardly the only people to have used circles. From the moment abstraction emerged at the start of the twentieth century, it was inevitable that artists would experiment with alternatives to the obligatory rectangle. Sonia Delaunay and Kazmir Malevich were exploring what could be done with circles over a hundred years ago. And, of course, the use of the 'tondo' goes way back into art history. So, nothing is original, and what we are left with is the question of what can be done with what is available.

I should stress, too, that whereas circles are important to me, they are not the only things I do, and the work spins off into many other areas. I do seem to keep coming back to them, however...