A People Observed

A stunning exhibition of art by LS Lowry and William Conor is let down by lacklustre presentation

The MAC, Belfast’s newest arts venue, is a stunning example of contemporary, urban design – all tactile surfaces and odd angles, like being in a very cultured MC Escher drawing.

A fitting space then to house the impressive A People Observed exhibition, which hosts works by two iconic artists of industry, William Conor and LS Lowry. Situated in the MAC’s Tall Gallery (third floor, look for the cool cream leather suite), the hung art is difficult to critique.

On the basis of individual aesthetics, some pieces will obviously appeal more than others. Despite being born in the same decade and sharing similar preoccupations, Belfast's Conor and Lancashire's Lowry were very different artists.

However, whether you prefer Conor’s striking studies of the working classes or Lowry’s focus on cityscapes populated by faceless pipe-stem characters, the quality of the art and its impact is hard to deny.

Conor’s lively, colourful scenes, full of emotion and expression, are easy to like. It is especially interesting to see the evolution of his style as it developed throughout his career. The 1901 ‘Geggin’, for instance, is almost identical in pose and subject to the 1922 ‘Courtin’.

Both depict a man and a woman standing in the street, the woman wrapped in a long shawl. Yet where the 20 year old Conor’s work was stiff and lacking affect – the woman in particular staring blankly ahead with a flat, smooth face – the 41 year old artist brought life and wrinkles and texture to the canvas. It feels a much more affectionate piece, less simply a record of a scene.

Another Conor piece that makes an impression is ‘The Latest News’, which depicts a group of men and women gathered to read the billboards outside a shop (pictured above). It is a vibrant, clean-edged piece and is full of character. The magic is in the little details, like the various shoes and one gentleman’s boxer-flattened nose.

Lowry’s stylized, alienated streets tend, for me, to lack that charm. Instead they are subtly disturbing, with the scurrying masses forever in transit. It is a representation of a rapidly industrializing society that is neither approving nor disapproving.

That isn’t to say that Lowry's works here aren’t interesting. The complexity of detail contained in some of the apparently simple scenes is both impressive and engrossing. It would be possible to spend a great deal of time just admiring Lowry’s exquisitely rendered churches, houses and fences, for example.

Even a fairly minimalist scene like ‘Francis Terrace’ contains a surprising number of ‘grace note’ details, from the children scuffling over the rocking horse to the woman waving her husband off to work. There is also ‘Going to Work’, where a few independent pipe-stem people attempt to make their way through a throng of commuters going in the opposite direction. The sense of movement and urgency is wonderful.

That is to mention only a few of the artworks on display. A People Observed really is an unimpeachable collection, as far as the art is concerned. On a curatorial level, however, the MAC has made a number of odd decisions.

The Tall Gallery is so dark as to actually feel like an unlit room when you come in, rendering the ankle-high, grey ropes cordoning off the paintings something of a health hazard. It is also noisy, with the two constantly running video installations in adjoining rooms echoing back off the walls.

There is also little to no context provided for the work hung, or the place of selected works in the artists' wider development. The viewer must make do with a brief blurb on the two, and name and date of each painting. Presumably the talk by Michael Simpson, Head of Art and Engagement at The Lowry, on May 31 will provide some much needed background, but it is a shame there is not more to the exhibition itself.

On the whole, the art is of a high enough quality that none of the above could mute my enjoyment of it. Nevertheless, it still feels less like touring an art gallery and more like sneaking into the storage room at a museum.

A People Observed is at the MAC's Tall Gallery until June 10.