Saturday, 9 January 2016

Revelations in glass

Eleanor Morgan
It's been my intention to write and record something about glass for a while now, primarily looking at it from a combined scientific and contemporary art point of view. For instance, Luke Jerram's mysterious shapes of viruses - ebola, MRSA and swine flu - crafted from glass, or the sculpture made from glass laboratory implements recently exhibited in the Wellcome windows. Then recently there was the stunning Glass Delusions at the Grant Museum which was partly inspired by nature's foray into silica based organisms. The inexplicable and unique scientific nature of glass makes it a perfect material of artistic endeavour, able to capture fragility, a human moment of stillness in a medium of movement.

Despite the lure of scientific elegance, the darker, more mysterious light work of Greg Tricker beckoned. His show at the ironically rather soulless marble and glass surroundings of Kings Place is coming to an end but I feel fortunate to have caught it there. His work isn't all stained glass, but encompasses all media familiar to mediaeval craftspeople. Although his glass images make the most impact reflecting around the space, the oil on wood paintings and the biblical oak sculpture were actually breath-taking in intensity.

In odd contrast to Eleanor Morgan's shattered heads and missing faces, you find yourself hypnotised by his ageless icon-like faces. It becomes rapidly apparent how far away you are from the rational didactic perfection of the Wellcome glass pieces. Although science is truthful revelation, the themes here are miraculous, religious or revelatory in a 'John the Baptist' biblical sense. For me the use of glass in scientific art compared with religious art contrasts the human-intellectual with human-emotional - in all its messy domestic and heart wrenching glory.

The most cynical of hearts can enjoy the simplicity of Tricker's religious narratives. The sequential images of saints tending the fire in the hearth, washing clothes in the village well, or surveying the harvest, take on meanings and ancient significance. Biblical stories of anointing of Christ, his breaking of bread and the later tales of saints connect with our inner child to provide homely succour and, for some, a security in our difficult modern world.

Three things struck me. Firstly the monumental and hypnotic power of the faces. Whether in wood or glass, in profile, or straight on, the childlike eyes gazed out unconscious of an audience. Those eyes which hold ours directly - of Christ, Mary and John are unflinching and unyielding, demanding understanding and compassion.

Those in profile draw one in to the images' narrative and emotion because of their subjects abstraction. The healing Spring of Lourdes is truly primeval - the seeming essence of God is pouring out of the mossy nook; male / female, old / new, religion / none, it seems that both everything and nothing is happening in this moment. The etched female could be any number of fertility goddesses giving life to the earth. The astonished gaze of the human earth bound female figure to the left could be experiencing everything from sexual awakening to the urge to quench thirst. But we are none the less witnesses to something momentous.

The third gaze contains a steadfast piety. Joan of Arc has glanced away from us, as if caught by her revelation; Mary Magdalen holds her hand against the tomb entrance in quiet abstracted sorrow and shock; and St Bride is lost in her swirling Celtic landscape of thought. And St Joan - la Somme - although shivering in the wet and rain, is fearless in her steely gaze forwards, over the prow of the wooden boat.

Secondly, although the images contain such luminaries as Christ, Joseph of Arimathea, and John of the Revelations notoriety, female figures predominate. The virgin, St bride, St Joan of Arc, St Bernadette of Lourdes, Mary Magdalene. Their depth and power penetrate the silent gallery. There is little evidence of their psychological or physical suffering - they appear as if someone has lifted their burdens after a long journey. They are serene yet leave us in no doubt as to the extremity of their experiences. Even the female pagan images - Bride the Shepherdess, Bride of the Spring, Keeper of the Fire - speak of a powerful connection with nature and death. Birds, colour, landscape swirl about these images, endowing them all with something otherworldly, yet ours for the taking.

This is what makes the simple actions of the religious stories so profound. Juxtaposing the hardships, death, and physical threats these women faced with apparent everyday life, makes me shiver. Not because they are stories from long ago, but because the news is full of accounts of journeys that women and children are making everyday to flee famine, pillage, destruction and rape. The burden and experience that you see in those faces are the same as these women. Indeed the face of an imprisoned John the Baptist appears no different from that of the blogger in a Saudi prison. Injustice is clearly timeless and universal.

And finally, the materials which he uses to convey these stories, is of central important. I started out by talking about glass and, there is much more to be said. Although these artists are quite different in their approach, I love how they interconnect. They are creating new incredible pieces out of existing objects; Tricker's wooden boards have clearly had a previous life, Morgan's antique leaded glass fragment (illustrated above)  has been refashioned, and Jerram's abandoned flotilla of fishing boats all seem to speak to us of journeys, transformations, and something deeply spiritual. Ideas which are as fluid as the glass which has inspired the art.

In my usual chaotic way, all of these exhibitions closed recently. Sorry!

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