it’s often so passionless

Museums LS Lowry is an acquired taste, and it’s a taste I’ve never acquired. Living in the general area, Lowry’s name and work crops up over and over both in local galleries and particularly on the local news whenever an anniversary is reached, an exhibition is opening, one of his 'lost' paintings is found or Oasis have put out a new video and there’s the usual clip of Brian & Michael (or rather Kevin & Michael) on Top of the Pops, shots of the real place the artist was trying to capture and then the work itself with its muted colour and naïve figures; social history through the prism of splodges and lines and dirt. The worst indictment possible is to say that it’s pleasant – it’s not art which stirs my emotions positively or negatively (which is the best kind of art surely?) but simply exists waiting for me to stand before it and shrug my shoulders and sigh.

The shapeless forms of the people doesn’t help; he’s said: "I wanted to paint myself into what absorbed me [...] Natural figures would have broken the spell of it, so I made my figures half unreal.” There are other artists that have followed the same pattern, but you’re desperate for Lowry create an emotional connection, one which is apparent to everyone and not just those who lived through those hardships and those places and their descendants. But he continues: “To say the truth, I was not thinking very much about the people. I did not care for them in the way a social reformer does. They are part of a private beauty that haunted me. I loved them and the houses in the same way: as part of a vision.” Which is probably why, considering his subject matter often included extreme poverty, the blitz and proper human emotion, it’s often so passionless.

Yet he has a huge following, huge enough that after decades of acquiring his work, Salford City Council opened The Lowry centre as part of the Salford Quays project in 2000 as a way of celebrating his contribution to the local area (and you thought this was just a random rant about an artist!). It’s an exhilarating design by James Stirling and Michael Wilford with a giant glass atrium for an entrance, sweeping curves that give the impression of a ship and waves influenced by the surrounding waterways and as Edward Morris notes in his Public Art Collections in North-West England, “in the tradition of the Barbican Arts Centre in London” has, as well as a theatre, shops and a very nice (if a bit expensive) café and restaurant. It’s the kind of place that used to only happen in the south which would be looked at with envy from the north and shows that high end arts venues can literally be built anywhere these days.

The Lowry, then, is an exciting yet comfortable building -- and a complete failure as an art gallery commemorating the work of a famous local son. Given that his name is stamped on the front, just four or five small white box rooms are dedicated to displaying the artist’s work, less floor space than the café or perhaps the toilets and the adjoining waiting area for the theatre. Given my opinion of the man’s work, I shouldn’t be too annoyed about this – the idea of room upon room of the work to stroll through would fill me with dread – but in these circumstances, after the amazing architecture leading up this meagre haul, it’s still an anti-climax, especially having specially travelled in from Liverpool. I thought all of this when I first visited in 2002 and nothing has changed.

Exhibitions should be stories or in the best cases arguments explaining why the work on offer is noteworthy and notable and I was genuinely hoping that this time I might stand before some of these works and finally understand what they were trying to say, why they touch people. What counts against this happening here isn’t just the fact that so few works are on display but also that they’re displayed at what looks like random; some of the finest shows place the work into a chronological order so that you can see the artist’s ideas and technique develop reaching their zenith and then in some cases decline. At The Lowry the work doesn’t even seem to have been collected thematically. Instead, decades are mashed together and sometimes has the effect of actively arguing against his brilliance as works from the 20s are shown next to works from the 50s and nothing has apparently changed at all.

I say sometimes, because one of the gallery's few successes is to demonstrate that Brian and Michael did the artist some disservice; he didn’t simply paint the matchstick men and the rest, the stereotypical images of factory workers and dark Salford concrete, his range was much great taking in the rural landscape, maritime and portraiture. There’s a portrait of Ann, a fictional character around whom he’d weave stories for his friends, and for all its art deco stylings jet black hair and off-red top she has more humanity than anyone else Lowry painted. There’s an early image of Wigan’s industrial landscape that’s musty and impressionistic and show signs of the artist still getting his ideas straight.

The biggest surprise are his natural landscapes, which reduce what might be the lake district to a simple arrangement of shapes, olive greens, blacks and off whites so abstract that if they were hung on their side or upside down, without a label, they’d pass easily as something far more muscular. All of these were created concurrently with his more familiar work, and give impression that he was a man who wanted to try other things, develop his art, but was forever locked into a cycle of fulfilling popular expectation, presumably because it’s this that paid the rent. When he says he himself didn't want to give to layer some deeper meaning into this work, was it because he didn’t care much for it?

Perhaps I’m reading too much into this, unable to bypass my own deep seated prejudices. Throughout the gallery there are labels with quotes from previous visitors offering their opinions of the work, why they like them. There are celebrities (Les Dennis likes one of the houses because it reminds him of the place he lived growing up in Liverpool), but the more insightful comments are from younlings, the best from a child who finally understood the horror of the blitz from seeing Lowry’s depiction.

Maybe that’s the best time to view these works, when you haven’t already absorbed some of the other things art and culture have in general, the darkness, desperation and structure that can make you irritable, cynical and sad, so that you can look back on them with a certain nostalgia. But then, I’m not sure at that age I’d be able to view the major stand out piece in this exhibition, and still be able to sleep at night, Tollhouse on the Moor (1959), which, with its simplistic, symmetrical background and forbidding central building, which has all of the welcoming qualities of the Bates Motel.

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