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Aspects of the Bible’s women

21 February 2014

Nicholas Cranfield  visits Chris Gollon's Guildford show

Part of a diptych: Pietà , 2013, by Chris Gollon, in his exhibition at Guildford Cathedral

Part of a diptych: Pietà , 2013, by Chris Gollon, in his exhibition at Guildford Cathedral

CHRIS GOLLON, a resident of Surrey, was born in Coronation year; so it is perhaps doubly appropriate that this exhibition of his recent paintings should be displayed in the nave of one of the two Church of England cathedrals consecrated in the Queen's reign.

Not everyone likes the starkness of Sir Edward Maufe's great edifice, built on Stag Hill, north-west of the town (1936-61). Writing with Nikolaus Pevsner in the Buildings of England series of books, another Surrey man, Ian Nairn, commented that the building has "a queer power of compelling, not reverence, but contemplation".

That observation - which may explain the candid photograph of the Queen looking half amazed and half baffled at the opening ceremony in June 1961, as she and the Duke gawp up at the ceiling like all the other visitors on that great day -came to mind as I faced up to the works by Gollon which his agent, David Tregunna, has displayed along the walls of the nave; for Gollon is not a religious painter as such, although many will know his Stations of the Cross (2008) in St John's, Bethnal Green, and my own first introduction to him was at a Millennium art exhibition in St Paul's Cathedral.

The medium of all these works, including a five-foot-long mural depiction of "Noah's wife", which is a joint venture with the pupils of Queen Eleanor's C of E Junior School in Guildford, and omitted from the catalogue, is acrylic - on canvas or, as if to emphasise the fragility of each subject, on paper.

This is not a medium that I have ever much enjoyed, but Gollon makes powerful use of it, developing a range of textures from dense colours (Magdalene at the Base of the Cross) to the granular-like effect of an ink wash.

In 2011, Gollon painted a figure that at first sight is a nightclub hostess, tear-stained and regretful. Picasso's Harlequin and his café figures of 1901 (Arts, 10 May 2013) offer an obvious reference. But, in place of a wineglass, her hand reaches to an apple. The figure becomes The Contemplation of Eve (2011, private collection).

Here it is Eve's rapacious left hand that first takes our attention, and again and again it is the hands, and also the eyes, of which Gollon makes us aware. This is very much consonant with the Orthodox tradition, and gives his images a timeless sense of depth.

The exhibition flows from this single composition, which had sparked the interest of members of the cathedral Chapter and led to the suggestion for a series that looks at the unspoken side of the biblical witness of women.

It is perhaps only happenstance that The Expulsion from Paradise, the weakest composition, is hung beneath the 1982 windows that honour the Surrey Special Constabulary, while the diptych of the Madonna and Child and Pietà look so much more at home in the north transept.

These five foot square canvases, yellow and mauve, embrace their figures. In one, the Second Eve dangles an apple, to which her son reaches out, while in recognition of her son's death her hands close in voluptuous prayerfulness.

"Curse God and die." Job's wife speaks little in the Bible, but there is no gainsaying the forcefulness of her one interpolation. In Gollon's account of it, she is shielding one of her sons from hearing her imprecation, her hand half in blessing and half in fear laid on his head.

Hannah's was a silent prayer (1 Samuel 2), and she therefore comes to represent the first example of silent contemplative prayer. Her hands are monumentally raised in front of her gaze while Dame Julian's arms are crossed as she is captured deep in thought, her pince- nez laid to one side next to her ink horn and pen.

Two rather different biblical stories show the consequence of lust and loss. For the naked Samson, who has a heart-shaped tattoo inscribed with Delilah's name on his forearm, sleep will be long. Deep in a dream, he reaches out to his Philistine lover, who has just stirred. With her back turned to him and wrapped only in a bath towel, Delilah looks at the scissors as if she is about to shoot up with a needle.

With Salome, Gollon appears to tell a different story. On the stark wall behind a blindfolded John, graffito reads "Forgive me". Salome hastens away from him. Was theirs a guilty secret? Is Salome the woman scorned? Or is John making a final appeal to the unnamed daughter of Herodias who has occasioned his death sentence? Either way, the sexual charge in the painting is unmistakable, and no doubt upsetting in the suburbs of Surrey, for all that adultery and infidelity have come to characterise so much of our society.

The exhibition and a range of talks and activities runs to Lent, and then the cathedral will focus on the Stations of the Cross painted by the Romanian Jewish artist Arnold Daghani (1909-85), from the collection of the University of Surrey.

"Chris Gollon: Incarnation, Mary and Women from the Bible" is at Guildford Cathedral until 3 March.



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