In life, as in art, sometimes one has to park ones preconceptions at the door. So it goes as I walk into the Maclaurin Art Gallery in Ayr for a preview of a retrospective featuring the work of Jolomo, or John Lowrie Morrison, to give the artist his Sunday name.
After wandering through four rooms hung with Morrison’s work across seven decades, from schooldays in Glasgow through to his time as a prize-winning student at the Glasgow School of Art (GSA) in the 1960s and 1970s and on to the wild wide-open spaces of Argyll and beyond, my overheated synapses are dating a jig. This is not what I was expecting…
Sure, the familiar Jolomo landscapes and crofts in vibrant high-key colours are there in spades, but make your way around the rooms and there is much, much more to Jolomo than meets the eye.
When we speak later on the phone, Morrison, 73, says that he knows people will be surprised by the work on show here. Although there are works in this version of his retrospective which have never been seen before, it’s not the first time many of these paintings have been given an airing in recent years. In 2013, he presented part one of the continuing retrospective featuring around a hundred works from his childhood through to the present day at Clydebank Town Hall Museum and Art Gallery. Some 20,000 visitors attended, attesting to his perennial popularity as a painter.
In 2020, Morrison was due to reprise the retrospective at the Maclaurin in Ayr – with added contributions from his studio – when lockdown struck. A year late, his work started to arrive in crates from his studio at Tayvallich in Argyll.
When I speak to Morrison on the phone; me perched on a window-ledge at the Maclaurin, and Jolomo newly-prised from his easel by wife Maureen, he laughingly admits that a lot of people won’t have a clue about his earlier work, or the fact that he has produced so many figurative paintings over the years.
“People will not know about what I did before I became known for the landscapes which I tend to paint now.” His use of high-key colour – juicy blood oranges and his trademark Cerulean Blue – started to develop in the early 1990s.
It’s Morrison’s earlier work which turns my head the most. In early 1970, Morrison visited Paris with his tutor, Dan Ferguson, and encountered the emotionally charged paintings of Marc Chagall and Chaim Soutine. For his final year thesis, he studied art therapy and started working at the East Park Home in Maryhill, where he befriended several young residents.
The large paintings and drawings of lads like David, Jamie and Sandy, many of whom had been abandoned by families unable to cope with their disabilities, present vibrant contorted shapes. They also sing with life and cheeky bravado. Walking into the room in which they are hung and seeing three large oils; Sandy, Eastpark Kids One and Eastpark KidsTwo on a facing wall, the depth of colour is so strong, its reminiscent of medieval tapestries.
These works revel in experimentation while pulsing with life – as you’d expect from a gallus young Glasgow man who’d once been belted at Hyndland Secondary School for asking when his class “was going to get art”.
Some of the Eastpark drawings are made with engine oil. “The dirtier, the better,” he chuckles when we discuss the work.
Another section of the retrospective is devoted to characters Morrison has encountered along the road. There are knock-out portraits of two old ladies called Jeannie and Grace (Amazing Grace), who lived in the same block where he had a studio in Garnethill, Glasgow, while he was doing a post-diploma year at GSA.
One large portrait, Auld Jeannie, is devoid of trademark Jolomo vibrant colour. Jeannie, with her shock of white hair and gnarled hands floats in a yellow dress against a pastel blue background. The hands and the wrinkled face are the focal point. Morrison’s classical training as an artist shines through. It takes a skilled and confident draughtsman to put oil on canvas in this way. Morrison was only 23 at the time.
It was during a holiday in Argyll in 1972 he first encountered an old gamekeeper called Archie the Jura or The Diùrach, in Knapdale, not far from where he and his wife now live.
Morrison drove passed Archie’s ramshackle cottage and saw an old man with a handlebar moustache chopping wood. He asked the old man, who turned out to be a “sharp-shooting” veteran of World War One, if he could draw the croft and it was the beginning of a friendship which lasted several years.
Morrison began drawing the croft and then the man. A large oil portrait of a contemplative Archie in deer-stalker har, which Morrison painted in 1976, speaks volumes about his training as a painter at the GSA during the second half of the twentieth century.
The work sold for £200 in the RGI’s Kelly Gallery in 1976 (Morrison was sure no-one would want to buy a painting of an old man) and he ended up paying £10,000 to buy it back at an auction a few years ago. Such is his fondness for the man – and the work.
“I just wanted to do a straight-forward portrait of Archie,” Morrison recalls. “So I did. I have this ‘problem’ that I am able to draw really well… but I don’t want to paint realistically. I am an expressionist painter.”
Morrison says his favourite painting in this retrospective out of more than a hundred works is an oil painting called Pomegranates and Flowers. This vibrant, juicy painting, dating back to his post-diploma year of art school, presents a still life of zesty yellow flowers and blood red fruit on a white tablecloth.
“My tutor, the painter Duncan Shanks, wasn’t someone who told you how to paint. But he came up to me and said, ‘see these reds, you can get them redder’. I mixed the paint more and it just started to zing.”
The dye was cast.
Morrison’s heritage as a descendant of Highlanders who came south to the lowlands for work is also writ large in some of the bigger paintings, particularly in bigger paintings from his 2010 series about the Highland Clearances.
For this lay reader in the Church of Scotland, whose faith means so much to him, there are several paintings on biblical themes. He made seven paintings on biblical themes in the early 2000s, tackling subjects such as Abraham’s decision to sacrifice his son Isaac and A Meeting With Christ, which give a visual voice to his faith.
As with many retrospectives, there is probably too much for one sitting in this retrospective. It’s hard to retain due attention when so many paintings tug you back.
Special mentioning must be made of the small but mighty team at the Maclaurin, overseen by Celia Stevenson and artist Dianne Gardner, who works as its curator on a voluntary part-time basis. This hang would have been a challenge for a large public gallery with a team of technicians at its back.
A Passion for Colour, Jolomo: The Retrospective Continued, Maclaurin Art Gallery, Rozelle Estate, Ayr KA7 4NQ, 01292 445447, https://www.themaclaurin.org.uk/maclaurin-exhibitions, Open daily, 12pm – 5pm. From today until September 5. Free. To book a slot, call 01292 445447.
Because we’ve been starved of such things, the hours I spent last Saturday, having lunch outside Hospitalfield’s glass-fronted cafe and wandering in and around its gardens with best friend, Ruth, and her mum, Pam, poured balm on our locked-down social souls.
As we ate in the half-sunlight of a north east of Scotland summer afternoon, we gazed out on the walled garden where one of Mick Peter’s cheekily playful life-sized “drawn” sculptures was happily subverting the trope of sad-looking naked ladies cast adrift on a plinth. Such fun.
Looking under our plates, we work out that the black and white drawing on this table and all the other tables, must be by the same artist.
The site at Hospitalfield, formerly known as Hospitalfield House, on the outskirts of Arbroath, began life as a hospital supporting the nearby Benedictine Abbey in 1260 and went on to become an art school in the early 20th century. It later developed into a post graduate residential art college.
Some of Scotland’s best-known 20th century painters studied at Hospitalfield, including the Two Roberts (Colquhoun and MacBryde) and Joan Eardley. Today, it’s still a place where artists come to work, study and learn.
Hospitalfield recently opened to the public as a venue where people can engage with contemporary art, history and horticulture. It’s currently working its way through an ambitious £11m development plan.
Stage one has seen a restoration of the nineteenth century Arts and Crafts house and studios, restoration of its Victorian fernery and a newly developed garden inside Hospitalfield’s distinctive double Walled Garden, designed by Nigel Dunnett. A renovation of the historic house and new gallery and visitor centre will follow.
Mick Peter’s three new sculptures, commissioned by Hospitalfield for its 2021 programme, are the first works he has made for an outdoor setting. Influenced by newspaper cartoons, Gerroff! (or User Feedback) presents as large playfully serious life-size black and white drawings. One of the groupings, which I particularly enjoyed, is sited in an area behind the double walled garden. It features a couple and a defecating dog in what might be a modernist sculpture park. A man in an anorak looks down on a small blocky artwork, while his partner (sporting a tote bag which bears the legend “Neighbourhood Watch”), is on her phone. We’ve all been there…
Mick Peter’s Gerroff! (or User Feedback), Hospitalfield House, Arbroath, DD11 2NH
01241 656124, www.hospitalfield.org.uk, open Thursday – Sunday, 10am-5pm, Until October 31. Free.
Fusing art with cycling and walking, Forth Valley Art Beat’s ArtCycle launches today and runs until the end of August. The trail features new work by; Audrey Grant at Bothkennar Pools, near Skinflats, a series of Blikvanger-styled artworks (bike path nets) across the Forth Valley by Natalie McIlroy who recently relocated from the Netherlands to Bridge of Allan, graphical artworks, The Trails are Calling for Canada Wood, just outside Falkirk, by Milk&Two Collective and a cycling route called ‘the grass is getting long’ in and around Forth Water on the edge of Stirling by documentary filmmaker, Holger Mohaupt.
Forth Valley Art Beat’s ArtCycle, at sites across Forth Valley, https://forthvalleyartbeat.com/artcycle-project-2021/, From today until August 31. Free.