Andrews is closely associated with ‘The School of London’, along with Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach and David Hockney. The painter R. B. Kitaj created this informal grouping in 1976 to describe certain young artists who had emerged in the capital in the 1950s and '60s and who looked to the human figure at a time when the prevailing avant-garde was moving towards minimalism and conceptualism. The artists found in flesh and bone all they needed to express the inevitable shift in consciousness that Western society had witnessed during six years of mayhem, the rise (and partial fall) of totalitarianism and the unique horror of Auschwitz and the atomic bomb. In John Deakin's famous 1963 photographs of the enfants terribles of British art enjoying a (mainly liquid) lunch at Wheeler’s restaurant in Soho, one can almost see in Bacon, Freud and Auerbach's body language their interest in the pleasures and pain of the flesh, whereas Andrews appears to stand slightly apart, whip thin and quiet, looking on, laughing and taking it all in. There was always a cool detachment to his work, such as his famous 1962 painting of Soho's bohemian dive bar of choice, The Colony Room (I), and other major works of the 60s, such as The Deer Park (1962, Tate) and All Night Long (1963-4, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne). Here he quietly observes the new social and economic forces that are to be the final nail in Britain's traditional class-bound society and which will also usher in the new consumer and celebrity-obsessed age. Yet these paintings have nothing of the ‘agit prop’ of Pop; rather they are clear-eyed ‘portraits’ of the nuances of a society in flux.
In the late 1970s, Andrews began what was to become a trilogy of series, painted over 15 years, that stands as a profound meditation on the self, existence and the weight of one's footsteps on the earth. It began with Lights, a nostalgic balloon flight around Britain and North America. The balloon stands as an avatar of Andrews himself, casting a slender shadow, floating on the unbearable lightness of being. This was followed by the group of paintings depicting deer-stalking in the Scottish Highlands, the artist-observer now taking on the persona of the ghillie, part rural labourer, part mystic, a man almost as at one with the landscape as the deer it is his job to track. As Paul Moorhouse notes in the introduction to Andrews’ Tate retrospective, 'perhaps the activity of stalking also suggested some analogy with his own activity as an artist - the sighting and stalking of the subject, the honing of skills, and the effort to fix the subject in his sights' (Paul Moorhouse & William Feaver, Michael Andrews, Tate Publishing, London, 2001, p.30). These works also draw from the last great mytho-poetic phase of British culture, Romanticism, and the wild heaths and glens upon which Victorian poets wrote our own national 'dreaming’.
The trilogy ends with the monumental series of paintings of the spiritual heart of Australia of which Near Malu Kata Evening, Katatjuta (The Olgas) is a central image. The ‘red centre’ of Australia is perhaps the most resonant, numinous landscape on earth, against which all of mankind's existence, even that of the unchanged civilisation of the Aboriginal people, is but the lightest scratch in the sand. As Moorhouse writes, 'it…[was the]…sense of absolute identity between living things and their surroundings, a fusion which connects individual's experiences to the historic past, that most impressed [Andrews]. Throughout the series, the Rock is seen as a living thing. Such images... convey a powerful impression of stillness, but the mountain is not presented as inert, geological matter. There is a feeling, rather, that it slumbers' (Ibid, p.35). (The titles in the series very deliberately prioritise the Pitjantjatjara names for the rocks over their 'colonial' titles, long before the Australian Government followed suit, as Andrews’ gives precedent to the ancient magic of the place).
Andrews visited Uluru in October 1983, arriving by light aircraft and staying for 10 days, during which he painted a number of watercolours and took hundreds of photographs (the paintings themselves were made back in his studio in England). He climbed Ayers Rock but also walked the 9km around its base, allowing the mass to unfold around him: a sense one gets from all the works in the series. He then travelled the short distance to the more complex 36-domed rock formation of Kata Tjuta (Mount Olga or more commonly, The Olgas). The latter, which whilst less internationally famous than Ayers Rock, is equally spiritually important to the Pitjantjatjara people and vital to their understanding of the physical imprint left by their ancestors in the Dreamtime.
What is magical about these huge paintings is how Andrews applies his liquid technique of colour glazes and the lightest of touches of the brush, made even more ethereal by the use of a spray gun, to this landscape that is so full of weight and physical presence. It is this contrast that gives these works a very 20th century twist to the Romantic 'Sublime': images that are both piled high with meaning yet effortlessly cool; loaded with metaphor yet equally stripped back (the paint is allowed to run and drip in places, to reassert the fragility of the surface). Uniquely within the series, in Near Malu Kata Evening, Katatjuta (the Olgas) Andrews adds a beating heart to the thorny, desiccated landscape, in the form of a mob of kangaroos bounding at high speed across the bush. Their fleeting presence in the painting – they are painted so thinly as to be almost transparent – stands as a clear metaphor for man's own impermanence in a landscape this ancient, a shimmering mirage against the rock's indelible age.
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