Ray Lowry retrospective in Salford

Those despairing at the demise of Manchester’s Urbis Museum, and the edgy, contemporary art exhibitions it has increasingly managed to put together, should take some solace from neighbouring Salford.

I’m not referring to the hyper-shiny Lowry Centre at Salford Quays, despite their attractive recent exhibitions of Harold Riley, Liam Spencer and Maggie Hambling. But far more interesting things are going on at the Salford Museum and Art Gallery near the city’s university.

Alongside the permanent attractions – a collection of Victorian paintings which aren’t really to my taste and a fun, reconstructed turn-of-the-20th-Century Salford street – are three temporary exhibitions.

At the moment these include a compelling photography exhibition by Richard Heeps on the changing face of the city’s Chapel Street, the thoroughfare that sweeps up from Deansgate up the university. The bright photos look at the street’s architecture, both the grand and the crumbling, as well as inside the churches, the museum’s stores, a tweed manufacturer and a poignant series on the closing day of a traditional shoe repairs shop.

But even better is a large retrospective on Salford’s ‘other Lowry’, Ray. I discovered Ray Lowry‘s work, which spans paintings, cartoons and photography, only a few weeks before his death in 2008 through an interview by Jemma Humphreys in the Lancashire Telegraph.

His connection with Salford is quite tenuous compared to unrelated namesake LS – Ray was born in the Salford suburb of Cadishead, but he lived in Rossendale in Lancashire for his last 20 years, revelling in anonymity, creating art across that mix of different media, while apparently nursing a ferocious appetite for alcohol.

His most popular, defining work is undoubtedly the cover of The Clash’s London Calling album, using a guitar-smashing photograph by Pennie Smith, becoming so iconic that it was recently issued as a postage stamp. This link will probably be what drags in the visitors, though it accounts for only a modest fraction of the exhibit.

Music was Ray’s strongest muse, so you’ll find some swirly, fiery-coloured paintings of The Clash – he was the band’s official ‘war photographer’ on a tour of America – and his other favourite acts, rock’n’rollers Eddy Cochrane and Gene Vincent, as well as a series of Elvis photos each progressively more zoomed and pixellated than the previous.

While he may have penned cartoon strips for once-cutting edge rock weekly NME as well as music fanzines, the theme of these is rarely musical. In fact they’re generally offbeat but wickedly funny – for instance, one cartoon shows bathers running into the sea screaming ‘sharks!’ after a typically overpriced ice cream van turns up at the beach.

His work is fuelled with the passion you’d expect of someone self-taught and driven only to please himself. The highlights of the retrospective, however, are the personal touches. Dozens of letters and postcards he sent to a friend in Eccles are on display, showing Ray as self-deprecating, constantly creative, open and opinionated. And there’s a reconstruction of his disorganised workspace – a diverse range of books on the shelves, rock’n’roll music blasting out, art materials spread out everywhere, with a can of strong lager close at hand.

Two edgy, temporary exhibitions, free entry, and a decent museum shop – in other words, highly recommended for those pining for Urbis.

* The Ray Lowry Retrospective continues until March 7 and the Richard Heeps photography until February 28. Check out the Salford Museum website for opening times and information on upcoming exhibitions including a Roger Hampson retrospective.

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