Mys­ter­ies lie be­neath the sur­face of Michael An­drews’s paint­ings, as a rare ex­hi­bi­tion re­veals to Laura Gas­coigne

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The mys­ter­ies in Michael An­drews’s works in­trigue Laura Gas­coigne

The view over­looks a river es­tu­ary: just mud­flats and water, no sky, with a few dis­tant fig­ures on the shore­line. Some as­pects of the scene—the tide-streaked mud and the light re­flect­ing off the water—look dis­tinctly fa­mil­iar; oth­ers feel slightly un­canny. The river is the Thames, although not as we know it. The es­tu­ary at Can­vey Is­land has merged with flooded Florence and the fig­ures on the jetty are time trav­ellers from a vin­tage photo- of Tower Bridge. At sec­ond glance, the swoop­ing per­spec­tive is it­self im­pos­si­ble: the im­age ap­pears to warp both space and time.

Thames Paint­ing: The Es­tu­ary (1994–95) was the last picture painted by Michael An­drews, the third in a se­ries in­ter­rupted by his death from cancer in 1995. At the age of 66, this ob­ses­sively painstak­ing artist left fewer than 250 paint­ings, more than 60 of which have been brought to­gether by Gagosian at Grosvenor hill in Lon­don W1 for the first ma­jor sur­vey of his work since the Tate’s ret­ro­spec­tive of 2001.

In the 1950s and 1960s, An­drews was part of the Lon­don art scene re­volv­ing around the le­gendary Soho drink­ing den The Colony Room, but he was al­ways an un­likely bo­hemian. Born into a de­vout Methodist fam­ily in Nor­wich, he was a fish out of water, tem­per­a­men­tally and ar­tis­ti­cally, in the so-called School of Lon­don, most of whose lead­ing mem­bers— Fran­cis Ba­con, Frank Auer­bach, Leon Kos­soff, Lu­cian Freud and R. B. Ki­taj—were born abroad.

An­drews was quintessen­tially english. In con­trast to the bold ex­pres­sion­ism of his con­tem­po­raries, his early works such as Tea in the Gar­den (1956) and Boy and Girl (1959) have a quiet, faintly un­set­tling re­serve about them— a qual­ity he de­scribed as ‘mys­te­ri­ous con­ven­tion­al­ity’.

They also have a pal­pa­ble sense of space. even in the to­bac­co­graph

and booze-fu­elled fug of his de­pic­tion of the Soho club, The Colony

Room I (1962), with its cast of reg­u­lars in­clud­ing Ba­con and Freud, the at­mos­phere cre­ated by the deep­green walls sug­gests a for­est or an aquar­ium rather than a room. At the end of the decade, this sense of space found a bet­ter out­let in his se­ries of paint­ings of ho­tair bal­loons drift­ing over dream­like land­scapes ti­tled ‘Lights’.

To An­drews, then at­tracted to Zen Bud­dhism, the in­flat­able— and de­flat­able—bal­loon seemed the per­fect im­age for what the philoso­pher Alan Watts called ‘the skin-en­cap­su­lated ego’. His grow­ing con­vic­tion that an artist could only see things as they were by los­ing his ego co­in­cided with his dis­cov­ery of a new way of spray paint­ing with sten­cils that elim­i­nated the per­sonal im­print of the brush­stroke. In his 1970s se­ries of un­der­wa­ter paint­ings of fish, ti­tled ‘School’, he used the tech­nique to mar­vel­lous ef­fect to pro­duce sur­faces as sub­tle as ce­ramic glazes.

Mean­while, sum­mer hol­i­days spent on the Gle­nart­ney sport­ing es­tate in Perthshire be­long­ing to his friend Jane Wil­loughby pro­vided a new and rather sur­pris­ing stim­u­lus. Zen and the art of stalk­ing seems a strange com­bi­na­tion, but An­drews recog­nised the sport, with its an­cient lore, as an il­lus­tra­tion of Man’s in­ter­de­pen­dence with Na­ture.

In Run­ning with the Deer (1980), a line of deer bounds across the mid­dle of our field of vi­sion be­tween the blur of grasses in the fore­ground and the cloud shroud­ing the hill­tops be­hind, their fleet­ing forms as seem­ingly in­te­grated with the can­vas as the bi­son with the cave walls at Al­tamira.

In 1983, An­drews found a sub­ject on the other side of the world that rep­re­sented ‘a near per­fect man­i­fes­ta­tion’ of his phi­los­o­phy of in­ter­de­pen­dence: the ma­jes­tic bulk of Ay­ers Rock, im­bued in the tra­di­tion of the Abo­rig­ines with the spirit of their cre­ator-an­ces­tors. After nine days spent cir­cling the rock with a sketch­book and cam­era— and, at one point, nearly fall­ing off it—he re­turned home with jars of red earth and bunches of spinifex grasses to use in his paint­ings. ‘There is some­thing slightly magic about us­ing the ma­te­ri­als that the rock is ac­tu­ally made of,’ he said.

There is also some­thing magic about painterly il­lu­sion, of which An­drews, in his mys­te­ri­ously con­ven­tional way, was a mas­ter. The shadow thrown by the bal­loon on the sun­lit sand in Lights VII is so con­vinc­ing that you feel you might oblit­er­ate it by stand­ing in front of it. Il­lu­sion in paint­ing is of­ten dis­missed as a cheap trick, but An­drews’ il­lu­sions are never su­per­fi­cial. ‘I am in­ter­ested in ex­ter­nal ap­pear­ances for what they re­veal of what is in­ter­nal,’ he stated.

Like Leonardo, he was fas­ci­nated by Na­ture’s mys­ter­ies, which is what lends his work its pe­cu­liar depth. ‘Michael An­drews: Earth Air Water’ is at Gagosian, 20, Grosvenor Hill, Lon­don W1, un­til March 25 (020–7495 1500; www.gagosian.com) Next week: Vanessa Bell at the Dul­wich Picture Gallery

Thames Paint­ing: The Es­tu­ary (1994–5), fin­ished a few months be­fore An­drews died of cancer, is a haunt­ing vi­sion of pri­mal mat­ter—the mud­flats of Can­vey Is­land—merg­ing into ab­strac­tion

Left: School I (1977) al­ludes to the sim­i­lar­i­ties be­tween fish and hu­mans in their so­cial con­form­ity. Above: Lights VII: A Shadow (1974). The bal­loon, a metaphor for the iso­lated ego, united An­drews’s in­ter­ests in aerial travel and Zen Bud­dhism

The Colony Room I shows the cel­e­brated Soho drink­ing club, a favourite of Freud and Ba­con

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