Yesterday morning West Dunbartonshire Council and Museums and Galleries Scotland presided over the opening of a Retrospective Exhibition of the work of Argyll artist, John Lowrie Morrison – aka JoLoMo – in the splendid renewal of Clydebank Town Hall as a museum and gallery.
The exhibition was officially opened by Culture Secretary, Fiona Hyslop MPS, welcomed by Terry Hannigan of West Dunbartonshire Council and in the presence of council CEO, Joyce White, staff from both organising bodies and invited guests of the artist, with three generations of his family.
Few artists see a retrospective exhibition within their lifetime and this one shows just what an early start John Lowrie Morrison made to his career. His early work has an area of the exhibition – top photograph – all to itself and includes a painting done at the age of four. ‘Mum. Dad and Me’, the skills and essential sophistication of which are extraordinary.
Talking at the opening yesterday morning, the artist spoke of the excitement of watching the wash spread across the wetted paper he had used for this and thinking ‘This is what I want to do for the rest of my life’.
He did, of course – although he began his time at the renowned Glasgow School of Art aiming to be a fashion designer. He says that the smell of paint and wood soon seduced him away from that intention.
Talking of his work as a colourist and an expressionist he offered two key insights, saying that colours have an extraordinary life of their own, changing during the act of painting, in a completed work and in maturity. He cited Van Gogh saying strong colour in a painting is proof of an enthusiasm for life.
Then, as an expressionist, he said that when he starts a painting he knows the urge that drives it but has no idea how it will end up. The expression of the feeling as he paints dictates that direction.
At the end of his address, he paid heartfelt tribute to his wife, Maureen whom he said had always believed in him where he had not always done so himself – and made his audience laugh when, after a short pause, he exhorted himself: ‘Come on, Morrison, don’t cry.’
The impact of the exhibition in its entirety is simply stunning. The force of the energy that informs it and the strength of the colours are twin engines commanding attention.
Where human or spiritual figures are present they are less convincing, with the work at its most successful in its representation of land and seascapes and with its summoning of the spirit that infuses them.
The early work, separated from the rest in its own space shows an obvious talent and carries a lot of interest. Had he continued on the routes indicated here, he would still have been a notable artist but there can be no doubt that where his ‘passion for colour’ [the title of the retrospective] has led him will have been much more commercially sustainable.
You can warm your hands at these canvases and so many of them – but not all – feature Argyll. Our own favourite is ‘Oaks at Torloisk’, which just about stays in charge of the force of nature itself – powerful, manic, with a destructive beauty and a wonderful use of paint.
There are a series of paintings – and a contrasting monochromatic charcoal – of the awesome Stevenson lighthouse, the Bell Rock, off Arbroath. There is a quite lovely small piece, of a yellow gold sky over Staff, framed perfectly in wide soft black band. There is Inveraray Castle, almost waving in the wind….
One cannot photograph paintings in this exhibition – which is just as well, as you will have to go to see it for yourself. There are around 100 works, from age four to 2013, mapping the transitions of an artist who has brightened so many lives and whose paintings capture, more than perhaps any other, the variety and the powerful beauty of Argyll.
The Clydebank Town Hall’s rebirth as a museum and gallery is a revelation of its own and worth a visit in its own right.
The spaces are majestic, clean and sharp, confident and attractive.
The architect has left roof lights through which you can keep in touch with the exterior envelope of this proud civic statement building of Clydebank’s status in the good old days – and this area retains much of the built heritage that will see a restoration of dignity and impact in time.
Clydebank became synonymous with Singer, through the massive sewing machine factory in the area, its extensive workforce, a rail station with that name and, again, elements of the built heritage deriving from the physical and economic local dominance of the company.
Many of the exhibits in the museum element of the Town Hall are either centred on shipbuilding or sewing machines.
A final little link between the artist and the building is that, behind the dais in the main gallery where he and the others spoke yesterday, was a dark entrance to a shop and who knows what else.
Pointing over his shoulder, Mr Morrison said: ‘There’s a pool in there I used to swim in with my Dad when I was a boy.’
The photograph second above shows where the where the single storey Gallery has been built out into ground in the elbow of the old buildings.
The photograph immediately above show the short arm below that elbow joint, projecting eastwards, with the rounded roof and the ventilating and light-giving clerestory that together signal the presence of the pool to which the artist referred.
Outside, among many corporate splendours and flourishes, this great building houses a magnificent war memorial, emphasising the levels of integration of the structure with the history of the people, the activities and the place whose significance brought upon it some punishing air raids from the Luftwaffe in the second world war.
Clydebank, its Town Hall – and you cannot miss its thrusting corner clock tower – and this exhibition are together a compelling invitation.