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