Andrew Gibbon Williams finds in Michael Andrews an artist who has sacrificed soul to precision, and arrived at a style verging on the prosaic.
()f the motley collection ofexhibitions presented this year as the Edinburgh Festivals ‘official‘ exhibition programme. none has received more attention than illiclzaelAndrews: Ayers Rock and Other Landscapes at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. This is somewhat surprising: the exhibition has arrived in Scotland second-hand from London‘s \N'hitechapel Gallery. albeit. as the curators have reminded us. with a number of new additions for Edinburgh. Nevertheless. Michael Andrews is an artist ofstatus. a mature practitioner of a certain genre of modernist English painting. who deserves to be seriously assessed. The great benefit of Ayers Rock is that it is extensive and allows us this opportunity for the first time.
The show consists mainly of large-scale depictions of Australia‘s most easily recognisable feature. Ayers Rock. No one could accuse Andrews of not having chosen a scale to suit the grandeur of his subject: the canvases are vast. Nor
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can the artist he criticised for not having been sufficiently humble before his subject: Andrews‘s fastidious method ofdrawing and his observation ofcolour and tone are, from a technical point of view. irreproachable. So what is wrong with the artist's interpretation ofthis visually dramatic spectacle? I think the answer lies in the peculiarly English artistic tradition ofwhich he is fast becoming an elder statesman.
At the Slade School ofArt, Andrews studied under Sir William Coldstream. an artist who stressed the sacrosant nature of precise observation above all else. But Coldstream‘s rather clinical concept ofwhat constituted observation was not the form-describing. relaxed mark-making hallowed by generations ofstudents in 19th century Life classes. but a kind of two-dimensional measuring-up on the canvas; an emotionless objectivity which had the overwhelming effect of depriving every image of the artist‘s own personality. Apart from Coldstream's own tedious portraits. the austere effect of his dogmatic beliefs is still evident in the work of a range of English artists now getting on in years. Euaun Uglow is perhaps the most extreme example. Michael Andrews is a more subtle other.
It must be said that Andrews is no doctrinaire apostle of dreary old Coldstream. Over the years he has woven a sentimental historicism into his art which would undoubtedly have been alien to his early master. In his Australian pictures. for example. one is meant to gain spiritual sustenance from the mysterious aboriginal connections of the subject on which Andrews had pondered. The artist‘s intention is that a certain profound. though imprecise message should be imparted because of
his own intense involvement with the atmosphere created by his subject. Apart from anything else. Ayers Rock is an extremely potent ancient symbol. so that it is difficult to say whether one is just imagining that it is. In the Scottish subjects which comprise the other large section of this show. however. it certainly does not. Numerous canvases are based on the artist‘s own experiences ofdeer-stalking. or rather. the experiences he attributes to his fellow stalkers in works such as Alistair's Day: Second Stalk. The Scottish landscape looks sufficiently green and windswept. but the rear views ofthe prone stalkers impart a banal. photographic quality to the compositions. If it is a sense of timeless l lighland grandeur you are after. then Victorian artists like McCulloeh and Landseer are far better sources.
The final canvas in this exhibition is unfinished. It is a large. stained. thin image ofanother ‘delectable mountain'. this time Edinburgh‘s own castle rock. In a long talk the artist gave to the sponsors ofthe exhibition. Michael Andrews described how he had immersed himself in Scott. the Convenanters and the rest of the Grassmarket‘s grisly history in order to equip himselfto realise this image. I suspect that few historically informed local visitors — and there will be an abundance in Edinburgh — will have any idea of the pains to which the artist has gone in his research.
Michael Andrews: Ayers Rock and Other Landscapes is a! (/1 e (iallery of Modern A rl. Belford Road, Edinburgh until 2‘) .S'eplemher.
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50The List 13— 26-September 199] -