MICHAEL ANDREWS IS A PAINTER of the now famous generation of post-war British painters that spans from Freud to Hockney, and to those steeped in what is ludicrously known as The London School, he is at least their equal (is that saying much?). His output, however, is much smaller, and this has led his apologists (numbering among them, inevitably, Sir Lawrence Gowing, who sensed a kinship with Piero della Francesca) to promote the notion that none of his canvases escapes the studio unless it is a masterpiece. Rarity has thus become an instrument of hype.
Andrews has no belief in slapdash genius - not for him the trowel-it-on, and scrape-it-off business of Auerbach - and in the careful preparation, the prior thought, the organisation of ideas and their thin consequence, comes close to Hockney, though technically narrower and now more intellectually mystical than that prolific and popular hero. A pupil of Coldstream at the Slade, he uses none of the obvious Coldstream devices of grid and measurement, of little ticks and lines to show how careful is his seeing and how diligent his reduction of the things seen to two dimensions with only an illusion of the third - yet the ghost of Coldstream holds his hand in leaden restraint, making the touch tentative, the final resolution of ideas evasive, and the process of painting so slow that many of Andrews's pictures have all but died in parturition on the easel.
He seems not to respond to what is on the canvas as images appear under his hand, nor to savour the excitement of gesture -only to be so deliberately intent on the preconceived pattern that he must use methods and techniques that neuter all that could be impulsive and painterly, that subject serendipitous inspiration to mere accuracy. Perhaps such rigid adherance to the preconception offers him the reassurance that he has needed all his working life -that he is a painter of some originality and distinction, and not merely the wavering imitator of influence whom art historians may one day dub the man who always followed and never forged ahead. At the Hayward Gallery's retrospective exhibition of his work ten years ago the slow drift of his small genius was from Coldstream to Bacon and on to Photo-Realism, with hints of Sickert and the Kitchen Sink, portraiture that derived from Minton and Moynihan, and of the Royal Academic set piece of the family in the garden or friends grouped in a bar or restaurant. None of these things was done with conviction, and all have a nature that is both plodding and irresolute, with all the little braveries either made impotent by indecision and unfinish, swamped by silly tricks and borrowed mannerism, or so close to the photographs from which they were derived that they had scant identity as paintings
.Andrews's work now on view at the Whitechapel Gallery suffers still from all these indecisions, though the influences are less apparent. The exhibition consists of nine paintings of Ayers Rocks executed between 1985 and 1990, but on which he had been brooding since 1983, with one quite unfinished Scottish landscape borrowed dripping from the easel, and one painting produced in 1970, to indicate the whither and the whence. The whither is so quaint a combination of High Victorian topography with the drips and stains of Sam Francis and French Tachisme, over which we were all so enthusiastic in the Fifties, that its inclusion in this condition can only be excused by attributing to the organisers a state of mind akin to that of the Catholic peasantry when confronted by the Turin Shroud. The exhibition's tide is The Delectable Mountain' Ayers Rock, and it is on Andrews's portrayals of this and other outcrops in the neighbourhood (one of which looks like a gigantic humbug with Mae West's lips) that we must concentrate.
Some of these pictures were first exhibited in 1986; in his brief preface to the catalogue, Andrews then quoted the hymn 'Rock of Ages, cleft for me, Let me hide myself in Thee . . .' and proclaimed that this magical mountain, sacred to the Aborigines, was a radiant incarnation of the verse, metaphor to Christians and fact to Aborigines. A methodist by education and something of a Zen Buddhist by adoption, Andrews is perhaps intellectually attuned to the literal idea of the cleft rock as a safe haven, Freudian though it may be, and to the notion of spiritual salvation through agencies other than the God of the jewish-Christian-Muslim tradition, even if these be atavistic, pantheist or animist. Whatever we may think of the paintings, we have no reason to doubt the intense sincerity of Andrews when he describes the area of Ayers Rock as an 'Elysian plot for unselfish souls', and his sense there of some transcendental experience is one that all worthy travellers will recognise. The trouble for me is that it is in his words, not his paintings, that I recognise the grip on Andrews's soul, the spirit of the place.
The paintings are large. The largest, with the length of fourteen feet, assumes the proportions of a billboard and has a billboard's flat, shallow, photographic brilliance, the darkening sky broken by scraps of white cloud as though it were the ceiling of a night club in the flicker of a disco light. Catherine Lampert, the Director of the Whitechapel Gallery, is at pains to dismiss the photographic quality as a deceptive impression, a minor thing overwhelmed by the sheer physical presence of the paintings - but the photographic quality is as much part of the physical presence as the paint, and cannot be so naively denied. The paint is meagre stuff largely blown on by a spray-gun, and the crisp outlines of the Burra-shaped mounds are those of stencils blanking the mists of colour. The ghostly grasses in the foregrounds, uncanny in their sense of the photographic negative, realism in reverse, are the result of more deft work with the spray-gun on dried trophies brought back from Australia. The one painting of the Rock that enlists the aid of oil paint (all others are acrylic) suggests that Andrews is not just a man of technical trickery; but the one canvas on which he attempts to enrich the texture by mixing with his paint the real earth of the Rock, results in such a heavy sag of dark material that it destroys all pictorial logic.
How slow all this business was is demonstrated by Evening,Katajuta, exhibited in 1986 as a painting in progress, but seeming finished: in the intervening years Andrews has brightened the sun on the horizon, lengthened two faint lines of scrubby bushes, added two small emphatic trees, changed the position of a kangaroo in the foreground and added another in the middle distance, and lightened the long grasses a little - all very deliberate tinkering to give scale and distance, anchorage and direction to a drifting view, and firm evidence of his integrity as a composer of pictures. Andrews, however, is no Turner, recreating and uplifting landscape in the dramatic turbulence of paint; he is no Constable, using the sensual substance of paint with sensuality; he is no Bierstadt, the Dusseldorfer who in equal wonderment applied the sunset glow of Claude to the Rocky Mountains of America. Andrews is none of these, but a minor post-Pop painter on a major scale, who mistakes size for intensity and, utterly failing to communicate his troubled response to Ayers Rock, gives us a railway poster rather than an icon. One late scrap of watercolour by Turner in the Alps makes empty nonsense of his vast enterprise.
Evening Standard 1991