Summary

Michael Andrews first visited Uluru or Ayers Rock, Australia in October 1983. The result of his visit to the Rock and the surrounding area was a number of watercolour sketches made on site and nine large pictures painted in his studio in Norfolk, England between 1984 and 1990.

Prior to his visit Andrews was aware of the sacred significance of the Rock within the animist tradition of indigenous Australians. According to local belief all things in the world were created during the 'time before time' known as the Dreamtime. During the Dreamtime the ancestor spirits, who came to Earth as humans and other forms, shaped the land, plants and animals as we know them today. At the end of the Dreamtime the spirits changed again, into animals, stars, hills and other objects. Uluru, as the Rock is known by the local Ananga people, is the form assumed by one such ancestor at the end of the Dreamtime, and as such the ancestor is immanent in it. Andrews was struck by a parallel between Uluru as the physical manifestation of a deity and the Christian hymn which metaphorically presents God as 'The Rock of Ages, cleft for me'. Indeed, when Laughter Uluru (Ayers Rock), The Cathedral I was first exhibited along with other works from this series it was in an exhibition at the Anthony d'Offay Gallery in 1986 entitled Rock of Ages Cleft for Me: Recent Paintings by Michael Andrews.

The title of the painting refers partly to the name of the large vermilion cave in the centre of the picture which the Ananga call 'Lagari' (Laughter), and partly from Andrews' sense of Uluru as similar to a cathedral in its grandeur and religious significance. It is a comparison, which has led the critic William Feaver to liken the Rock to Chartres cathedral seen rising out of the countryside.

Andrews began the long process of painting by projecting a slide reproduction of one of his watercolour sketches onto the unmarked canvas. He found this practice to be useful because 'as often as not the circumstantial marks in a drawing will turn out to have a structural significance in the picture' (quoted in Feaver, p.10). Having established the basic structure he deployed a great variety of tones and textures to articulate the painting's surface. In the foreground the bush has been painted by spraying tan coloured acrylic paint over stencils made from the same coarse grass that grows in the sandy soil around the Rock. Visible in the haze of paint are actual blades of grass and seeds. The gullies of the Rock are punctuated by passages of scraped impasto paint mixed with red sand taken from the site by Andrews. In contrast to the granular surface of the gullies, the soft lipped cave was achieved by staining the canvas surface with thinned paint. These textural variations are complemented by the subtle tonal variations evident throughout the painting. The pulsating rhythm created by this use of texture and tone combine with the large size of the canvas to generate a sense of a living and overwhelming phenomenon.

Further reading:
William Feaver, Rock of Ages Cleft for Me: Recent Paintings by Michael Andrews, exhibition catalogue, Anthony d'Offay Gallery, London 1986, p.7, reproduced p.7, cat.no.1 (colour)
Michael Andrews 'The Delectable Mountain': The Ayers Rock Series and other Landscape Paintings, exhibition catalogue, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London 1991, reproduced p.29 (colour)

Toby Treves
October 2000