TO DESCRIBE “Sacred Light: Christ and a Gathering of Saints”, the exhibition of artworks by the Gloucestershire-based artist and sculptor Greg Tricker currently on view in Gloucester Cathedral, as spiritually uplifting and edifying would be an understatement.
The depth and intensity of Tricker’s immense body of work calls for an informed and sensitive summing up, as expressed in the words of Sister Wendy Beckett, who opened the exhibition and who has written a new book on his art and its deeper ramifications, to be published when the exhibition moves to Westminster Cathedral in September.
Tricker is, Sister Wendy writes, “somebody possessed by a vision of holiness. He has an extraordinary command of technique, simple, yet charged with meaning beyond the surface. Steadily, quietly, he gleans out and captures his subject with gentle rejoicing.”
As you absorb this extensive exhibition (some 70 exhibits, almost all of them arresting, engaging, and replete with symbolic meaning), you feel that you, too, are gleaning: gleaning the fascinating glimpses and insights that stem from encountering a number of recurring religious subjects — St Francis of Assisi, the youthful St Bernadette, St Mary Magdalene, St Joseph of Arimathaea, the Holy Family, and our Lord himself — approached by Tricker in such a rich range of media: refined woodcuts, gnarled wood-carving, kaleidoscopic stained glass, stern heavy oils, sublime light pastels, delicate sculptures in Portland Stone, each new treatment casting light on different facets of his subject.
Often the contrasting media meet and interact: oil paintings sectioned into forceful splashes of colouring, like stained glass; painted figures whose elongated features, like his carvings, recall Cycladic sculpture, or a Modigliani portrait.
Sculptures surprise you in the side aisles. Exhibits adorn the nave pillars on both sides; and the prolonged display stretches around all four sides of the Gloucester cloister, gratifyingly revealing the artist’s fertile imagination and his mastery of many techniques.
Tricker’s brilliant stained glass assails you instantly, irradiated with light, posted on the nave’s north pillars, in a polychrome blaze: a Mary and Christ-child who fix you with their gaze (Tricker’s work in all media focuses invariably on the eyes, not unlike ancient Egyptian sepulchral paintings); an intent, benign Christ with wheat and loaves; a St Clare whose outward grace bespeaks a pure inner spiritual life; an evocative St Francis. In the last two, he adds tiny glimpses into a corridor of rooms, or cells, picked out on a white or yellow background: these add an astonishing depth of perspective.
This is art that rejoices. St Bernadette of Lourdes (1844-79), a figure who has inspired the artist again and again, seems everywhere. Her pictures form a kind of narrative. The firm outlines of St Bernadette: The Grinding Stones evidence Tricker’s lifelong affection for Van Gogh — even more evident in St Bernadette (The girl with apple), an indoor scene with oddly angled ceiling and furni-ture. The former exemplifies what one might call his “blue” (or blue-green-grey) preoccupation — not quite a Picasso blue period, but something in that line.
“Blue” paintings include the wonderful The Christ Boy — a Journey, with strong, piercing eyes, and the tools of a carpenter’s workshop about him, which greets you immediately you enter the cloister; and two further down, The Nativity, with sensitively evoked St Joseph (the eyes again), and an ass that seems to have found its way out of (perhaps) Beckmann.
A similar German expressionist feel invades one of his engaging, more enigmatic Kaspar Hauser series, e.g. his red-yellow clown-hatted The Holy Fool; likewise Mary Magdalene — The Grieving; or St Bernadette: Journey to La Cachot, where the figures are packed around the handcart like a dense crowd en route to Calvary.
The artful packing of figures together is a key leitmotiv of Tricker’s Joseph of Arimathaea series; for this depicts the tiny group that, as legend has it, sailed with St Joseph to France and travelled on to Glastonbury.
A small woodcut print showing the doughty voyagers has a striking forward momentum, and a sense of battling the elements: it is one of several smaller items where the economy that Tricker achieves on a more compact scale is telling.
There is a stained-glass rendering of the same scene (in the cloister). But the most overwhelming of the Arimathaea series is The Grail Boat, a wood carving of the same figures piled aboard, with St Joseph doggedly facing ahead clutching the Holy Grail, all carved out of a massive piece of tree trunk: the result is of itself elemental. This contrasts with the delicate carvings in Portland stone: St Francis and the Birds, for instance, with its exquisite depth in simplicity; or the tender, youthful beauty of a St Bernadette carved from limestone, the reverse rough and unworked like a miniature Michelangelo. Here and there, too, one senses the example of Eric Gill hovering in the background.
Tricker paints impressively on wood. Several paintings in heavy oils are executed on old doors that seem wrenched from their hinges. This gives St John the Baptist in Prison, for instance, the unnerving feeling that you, the viewer, really are in prison. A sparing use of gold leaf in some depictions of Christ seems less successful: perhaps it needs to be all or nothing: better dispensed boldly, with Byzantine indulgence. Yet several of these almost aggressively coloured “door” paintings contrive, remarkably, to produce a quality like two-dimensional stained glass: meeting of the métiers.
One work out in the cloister especially caught my eye: a key part of the St Bernadette series, St Bernadette of Lourdes — The Healing Spring shows the spring welling up in a multitude of glorious greens: with its memorably Classical figures, it captures in paint the nourishment, enrichment, the healing of a kind of prehistoric Lourdes. Not far away is a curio like nothing else in the exhibition: David Shepherd Boy, with shepherd pipes and lamb lightly daubed on a white background, as economical in its strokes as the simplest Picasso, or a Jean Cocteau sketch.
One or two images lacked such power. Two or three larger scenes in restrained pastel colours lacked the utter beauty of Mary Magdalene — Christ, in which Tricker’s grey-greens acquire the look, and subtlety, of watercolour. Two small evocations of the Journey to and from Egypt felt cluttered in design, colour, and grouping. A Horsemen of the Apocalypse ensemble looked a little desultory — a cartoon, perhaps, for something more finished. Quite the opposite of the superb, quizzical, reflective (and very bald) St John Isle of Patmos, which greets one on the way in, or the wonderful St Bernadette Mother and Child near by, in which the artist’s concentration on blacks, and browns — neutral colours, in fact — in evoking a cramped (kitchen) interior offsets a beautiful shyness in the figures and a gentle, touching humanity, which he catches in several such indoor scenes.
“Sacred Light” is an invigorating exhibition, here superbly displayed; anyone within reach of Gloucester, or of Westminster Cathedral, where it will be shown this autumn, would find it both uplifting and reward-ing.
“Sacred Light” is at Gloucester Cathedral until 5 May. Greg Tricker will give a guided tour of the display on Saturday 30 April from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. The exhibition be staged at Westminster Cathedral from 26 September to 10 October.