Part Two of my conversation with Richard Guest about Michael Andrews. Part One here.
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David: One thing Michael Andrews does not do is clearly set out his intention. I don’t think he has a program which is one of the reasons he appeals to me. The fusion of contemporary imagery (often through photographs), with a painterly surface and traditional, directly observed drawing further masks his thought process.
The Lights series is not really a series in a strict sense, but it is linked by the balloon viewpoints. This sensation of floating above things clearly appealed to him – of apprehending a very wide and distant view with nothing in the way and having a god-like clarity. Lights VII seems to have the composition and handling of a Rothko, and the palette and light of a Corot. Abstract Expressionism pulling against a representational landscape ‘view’. The shadow defines scale and space but the drawn elements are evanescent – only just there. It’s a really unusual fusion of these disparate artistic strands that shouldn’t be able to live together; yet it seems so natural. But what is in front of us feels like air and not abstract pictorial space. Or is that just all in my head?
Richard: No, I don’t think it is. And, it’s a great sensation. This is the first picture in the exhibition to make me wonder if Andrews’ concern is purely with picture-making, that the dialogues and tensions in the works are him merely trying to resolve pictorial challenges. This painting in particular seems not so much about intention as exploration – the balloon being a good vehicle (no pun intended). I’m trying to discover the content – is there any, or is this picture-making for its own sake?
David: I think that question came up because we were talking about that painting in a formal way, rather than just exploring feelings. It brought me up short because I really can’t say for sure. One thing we can clear him of is having a Manifesto. He is not trying to lay down a set of formal rules for painting for the next thousand years, but although Andrews deliberately avoids Expressionistic or overly dramatic subjects I don’t think this means they are devoid of content. I think the content is essentially quietly spiritual – which is an inadequate word for something so rational and secular. It is a space between the painting and the viewer for resting a moment with clarity of mind. It is especially manifest in this picture (Lights VII). To confirm this feeling I did what I very rarely do and read something the artist said about his work – in this case an interview Andrews did with William Feaver. He seems to have been taken by the phrase ‘skin encapsulated ego’ that comes from R D Laing (this was the 1970s, remember), and simultaneously an image he saw in a newspaper of a balloon – that seemed to him a perfect image of this. It was a serendipitous visual metaphor for the shedding of the weight of ego. In other pictures in the series you see the balloon or part of it, but in this painting (number 7- the last of the Lights pictures), the balloon itself disappears leaving only its shadow.
Richard: It’s about nullification then – it makes a lot of sense – the Rothko-like composition, the slightness of the image and gestures. Back to feelings, looking at the paintings again, there’s a sense of loss about a lot of them, a lack, a not-quite-thereness, or some kind of imbalance with a resulting sense of unease. I’ve been trying to work out what distinguishes them from straightforward landscapes and I think that’s what it is.
David: I think you’re on to something there – this work is far more complex than it first appears. Partly I think that is because there is a recognisable image that has not been grossly distorted we unconsciously underestimate the ‘artistic’ content and just look at the pretty picture. In Andrews’ case this involves a paring down – of the subject and also of the thickness of the paint on the canvas. I don’t think that is a coincidence. Like many 20th century painters Andrews preference was to diminish the artist’s hand in his painting – he was just subtler and more successful in his approach at blending into the background of his work than most. In a sense there is no real foreground in his painting. The foreground in Lights is somehow where the viewer is.
‘The only difference between a madman and myself is that I am not mad’ as Salvador Dali used to say…similarly the difference between a Michael Andrews landscape and a normal one seems to be everything and nothing. And going back to your previous question I don’t think this is picture making for its own sake but a supremely skillful use of painting as a medium of expression. What we are offered is not a portrayal of the landscape as such but the definition – almost the synthesis – of a feeling. I think there are ideas from Zen and Alan Watts floating about here from what I can gather, but while that might be obtrusive in most people’s work Andrews seems able to weave it into the structure without the painting becoming a riddle with an easy philosophical key. That idea of creating openness in the structure of art is very wonderful – it leaves space for the viewer. It is not the same as just producing unresolved work.
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Continued in Part Three