Chris Gollon was a British painter who unexpectedly died in 2017 at the age of 64.
During his life he exhibited all over the world and, while the context and subjects of his paintings could be eclectic – including commissions from various churches and the River and Rowing Museum in Henley-on-Thames – a constant source of inspiration to him was music. Gollon was an obsessive music lover and over the years this love began to seep into his paintings.
A huge fan of Bob Dylan and his 1965 song Desolation Row, he made a painting influenced by a lyric in it called Einstein & The Jealous Monk. This work was later acquired by the Huddersfield Art Gallery in 2005 and now the first major museum retrospective of Gollon’s music-related work has opened at the same gallery.
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Beyond the Horizon features a wealth of Gollon’s distinctive paintings, with musical links to the likes of The Beatles, Neil Young, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Bob Dylan and Eleanor McEvoy. There is also a new video work, a collaboration with the Nottingham-based duo Sleaford Mods, which showcases a selection of Gollon’s paintings set to the song Firewall, taken from their acclaimed 2019 album Eton Alive.
David Tregunna, the curator and director of IAP Fine Art, is the person responsible for the exhibition. “It’s really exciting to have brought all this to Huddersfield,” he says. “They were the first place to buy one of his music-related works, so there’s a close link to the place.” David and Chris had a long relationship before his passing. “I was his best friend and have been a friend of the family for nearly 35 years, so it was a big shock when he died,” says David.
They both embarked on a life of art together all those years ago. “We met by chance when I was 21 and he was 31,” recalls David. “Neither of us particularly liked our day jobs at the time and we just decided to go and do what we wanted to do. Chris had always painted but had never taken the risk to go full time. So he decided to do that. As soon as he went full time it really started to take off for him because of his imagination. He was a finalist in the Spectator Prize in 1989, and when I finished my university degree I got him a show at the Ferens Gallery in Hull and basically came into the art world without knowing much about it.”
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With the momentum Chris was gaining as a full-time painter, David was able to witness the talent oozing out of him and decided he wanted to dedicate his career to working with Chris. “I could see that he was going to go places,” he says. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do in life so I sort of became his gallery, which I’ve now done for 25 years.” It was a risky move, David says, but his belief in Chris as an artist was unwavering. “He seemed to have this facility, almost like a polymath, to really understand things and bring them together – he’s one of those people with an unending imagination. You could see that he was developing an amazing technique as well.”
Money was an issue and so opening a gallery was a way to sidestep some of the typical conventions of the industry at the time. “Lots of galleries in London wanted exclusivity on his work but they would only give you a show every 18 months or something,” adds David. “Chris was married with two young children and he wouldn’t have survived financially. I was a really big fan of the Specials and remembered that they started their own record label, so I took a risk and in 1994 I started London’s only one-artist gallery and dedicated it to Chris’s work. It worked because he then had a constant flow of income.”
Chris and David would often sit up in the evenings drinking wine and listening to music. “Music was a constant part of his life,” David remembers. But it was a commission that came from Thurston Moore (a member of the cult rock band Sonic Youth) that really impacted on the way that Chris began to allow music into his work. In 1998 Thurston invited Chris (along with the likes of David Bowie, Yoko Ono and Gavin Turk) to take part in an exhibition called ROOT, a crossover exhibition of contemporary music and art. Moore sent Chris a 52-second tape of music he had created and asked him to respond with a work of art.
“It gave him an opportunity to make an innovative painting,” David says. “By just sending in that 52-second tape and challenging him to produce a work of art, inspired by that music, it sent Chris on a journey.” Chris began to be inspired by lyrics, as well as inspired by music he was listening to while painting and created work to represent this. “There’s a parallel feeling that you get when looking at the music-related works,” David says.
“It takes the song somewhere new which in turn takes the painting somewhere new. He uses the parallel of creativity and what bands had to do to make something new – he would kind of look at how he could do that in his paintings.”
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One of the most profound music-related collaborations Chris undertook was with the Irish singer-songwriter Eleanor McEvoy. In 2015 she bought one of his paintings and was so taken with it that it inspired her next concept album, Naked Music, which she then asked Chris to paint the cover artwork for.
However, Chris loved the music and lyrics so much that he went on to produce 24 paintings for the project. Later an exhibition of this work was staged and a songbook published featuring both the music and the paintings together. In many ways things had come full circle, Chris’s work was inspired by music, which in turn was inspiring other people to make music. “He was really pleased with that collaboration,” says David.
There is a Spotify playlist for all the music-related works, so people can listen to the music before and after the exhibition to understand the often-lyrical links between the paintings and the work. Over 20 years on from commissioning him to undertake a piece of work that would change the way he thought about music and painting, Thurston Moore is still transfixed by Chris’s creations.
“His work moves beyond painting as singular expression, where music and its essence of spiritual sentience comes into accord, creating a personal yet welcoming environment – alive and free. I am proud to have had a moment where we colluded via the gestures of mutual acquaintance. His creative and modest genius is eternal,” says Moore.
For David, this is the first of many exhibitions he hopes will crop up after the passing of his friend. “It’s just a question of really curating his work because he innovated in so many different genres,” he says.
“There are so many different combinations of exhibitions we can do. So it’s really now my job just to document all these innovations that he made and produce catalogues and museum exhibitions for the public to enjoy and discover the true beauty of his work.”
Beyond the Horizon runs at Huddersfield Art Gallery until January 4.