In J.G. Ballard‚s The Atrocity Exhibition (1970), psychiatrist Dr. Nathan is referred an unusual case for treatment. Unable to square himself with the phenomenology of the universe, Nathan‚s patient Traven is floored by a world full of distinct odds and ends. „A spoon for example‰ writes Ballard „offends him by the mere fact of its existence in time and space seems to him preposterous by virtue of its unique identity‰. But if this pathology makes the spoon ridiculous, it does the same to the patient who brings it shakily to his lips. Maybe self-consciousness is Traven‚s problem ˆ at any rate, he‚s probably not much fun at parties.
Michael Andrew‚s early paintings worry away at similar existential problems, sieving Left Bank philosophy through the greying net curtains of 50‚s Britain. A Man Who Suddenly Fell Over (1952) depicts a bald Churchillian figure, flopping fatly onto a wet strip of anonymous flagstone. His sea-lion arms flap uselessly, silly appendages unable to hoist him upright. The woman to his left cups her anguished face in her hands as if witnessing some terrible crisis. Is this really such a disaster though? Puffball dignity punctured, the man‚s surprised expression is touchingly human. Sartre saw the split-second of personal decision as the only real moment of liberty in an individual's life. For Andrews‚ beached man, embarrassment offers a similar prize. His stuffy demeanor is transformed into an awe-struck baby-face, and the world seems wide open again. Like the pile-up of humiliations suffered by the hero of Kingsley Amis‚ Lucky Jim (1954), it‚s a peculiar post-war rehearsal for the broader struggles for freedom ushered in by the Œ60s.
The Colony Room I (1962), perhaps the best known work exhibited in this retrospective, forms the centrepiece of a room dedicated to Andrews‚ party pictures. It‚s uneven handling half Manet, half Helen Frankenthaler, Colony Room fizzes with Fitzrovian boho players. Among the skidding faces of Bacon, Henrietta Moraes and Jeffrey Bernard, Lucien Freud meets our eyes with impeccably cool disdain. We get the feeling that ˆeven in the Colony Room, surrounded by friends- Andrews found parties hard work. Good and Bad at Games (1964-8) transforms a rank of guests into helium balloons, their various stages of inflation an index of their social success. The wallflowers at this gathering look like empty sausage skins or sagging, half-starved marionettes clumsily manipulated by nervous fingers. An alternative for the shy and self-conscious is to host a party in your head. The Deer Park (1962) is populated by Ian Fleming, Marilyn, Norman Mailer and a truculent Arthur Rimbaud, mooching on the sofa. Andrews‚ imaginary celebration allows him to direct the action, turning the debauched French poet into a sullen teenager denied a second Singapore Sling by the sophisticated adults milling around him. However, there‚s a sadness in this stagy gathering of the great and the good, spilling out onto a luscious green lawn. The guests may be drinking Andrews‚ booze and slouching on his couch, but ˆlike Jay Gatsby- the artist never quite gets up the confidence to inhabit his own creation.
The Lights series of the Œ70s imagines the self as an air-ship, lolling over the English countryside, hanging over Waterloo Bridge like a vast, dented barrage balloon. Referencing R.D. Laing‚s notion of Œthe skin encapsulated ego‚, the air-ship gradually disappears from view as it makes it journey towards the south coast. In Lights VII (1974), the final painting in the series, we see only the ship‚s shadow projected onto a mottled beach. The ego has bled into its environment, extending beyond the barrier of its epidermis. Therapeutically, this is a good antidote to self-consciousness, but bad medicine for Andrews‚ art. The acrylic shoals of fish and huge, queasy paintings of Ayers Rock that followed the Lights series have the dulled edge of a post-rehab rock star. Andrews may have abandoned his defining theme in the mid-seventies but the parties, well, we‚ll always have the parties.