Michael Andrews paints slowly, exhibits infrequently and keeps such a low profile that it was once written of him that ''he is in danger of being taken for a rumour rather than a person.'' Conclusive proof of his existence comes in the form of ''Michael Andrews: The Ayers Rock Series and Other Landscape Paintings'' at the Whitechapel Gallery. This exhibition confirms the fabled slowness of Andrews' methods - the nine Australian paintings shown took him six years to complete - and it also confirms him as one of the more intriguing painters at work in Britain today.
In 1873, William Christie Gosse became the first white man to climb Ayers Rock. Climbing it, he thought, gave him the right to rename it, so the Aborigines' magic mountain became Ayers Rock, after Henry Ayers, Premier of South Australia. Michael Andrews visited it 110 years later. Not the sort of man to rush into things, he had been thinking about going there ever since seeing photographs of the place in a Sunday magazine in 1968. Andrews stayed at the Uluru Motel for 10 days in October 1983, making trips to the Rock and the Katatjuta, a group of smaller mounds 20 miles to the West. He took a large number of photographs, made studies in pencil and watercolour, and collected clumps of grass and bags of soil. He spent the rest of the decade back in England working all this raw material up into the paintings now at the Whitechapel.
This seems an odd and anachronistic project for a modern artist to have undertaken. Andrews has lived and worked in suburban Norwich for much of his life. A quiet and (by reputation anyway) private man, he does not sound the type to embark on the sort of heroic transglobal quest for subject matter of which these paintings seem to be the trophies. The pictures themselves are extremely large, the biggest of them, some 14 feet by nine, being The Cathedral, North East Face, Uluru (Ayers Rock). The vast eminence of the rock, pink as a peeled prawn against a cobalt blue sky, rises out of flat scrubland bristling with harsh Australian ground cover, punctuated with trees.
The title, subject matter and sheer scale of the picture suggest precedents in the grander forms of land-scape painting of the nineteenth century. Andrews, presenting Ayers Rock as a vast natural cathedral, re-calls Caspar David Friedrich, the German Romantic who saw nature as a great outdoor church, every stand of Bavarian pines a God-created cluster of Gothic spires. There are elements of Turner here too, in the de-sire to present the spectator with a symbol of the immense, cataclysmic power of nature. And elements, as well, of American nineteenth-century landscape painting, echoes of the wide-screen spectaculars of art-ist-pioneers like Albert Bierstadt and Frederick Church.
But Andrews' painting, his actual treatment of his material, is very far from Romantic. You find none of those deliberate visual rhymes that Friedrich used, no emphasis, for example (other than in Andrews' titles) on the cathedral-like form of the Rock, which is presented in mutely factual terms. Andrews' paintings mani-fest little of the ambition you find in Turner, where there is an alliance between the painter's sense of nature's primeval power and his own methods: those churning compositions, those vaporous etherised expanses of paint, from which Andrews' dead-pan, photo- based paintings seem far removed. Nor does the scale of An-drews' paintings seem to represent anything like the intentions of Bierstadt or Church, for whom size was a means of bludgeoning the audience into submission before the sublime vastness of their subject matter.
Andrews' are cool, detached paintings, and the brand of realism that has produced them encourages a form of numbed response to their effects: an odd, charged vacuity. They are enigmatic because the clues they give as to their intentions seem so oblique.
Andrews was educated in the early 1950s at the Slade School of Art, where he was taught by William Coldstream. Andrews once told the painter and writer Lawrence Gowing that he always remembered Cold-stream's scathing criticism of euphoric free-hand sketching - ''one should not come into the life-room with one's arm wagging like a dog's tail'' - and his own art seems built on the exclusion of anything extrinsic to precise description. Even when Andrews' handling is at its freest, as in Permanent Water, where the canvas is stained in thin veils of paint, it is not the sort of freedom that creates the sense of vigorous self-expression. It suggests, rather, an oil-painter's approximation to the medium of watercolour, describing a high, shadowy ravine through which a stream flows with a deliberate degree of indeterminacy.
The Ayers Rock paintings are meticulous, but they rarely give the impression of toiling, day-after-day engagement with the motif that is so commonly the product of Slade, School-of-Coldstream art. This is largely because they were painted from photographs, and because many of the other techniques that went into their making are inherently impersonal. Much of the painting was done with the use of the spray-gun: directed at cut-out stencils to trace the shape of the Rock, or at bunches of the foliage Andrews brought back with him from Australia to create those scrubby foregrounds. This makes for a sense of tension in the work.
The ambition for authenticity, which would seem to lie behind Andrews' use of physical materials from the landscape in his paintings of it, is contradicted by the evident extent to which these images are mediated by technology: the impersonal eye of the camera, the impersonal hand of the spray-gun. Andrews' use of stencils might be described as a realist's version of collage, but it actually has the effect of lessening your confidence in the illusion thus created. You can easily imagine Andrews placing the silhouettes of this or that geological formation of the Rock on his canvas, then spraying; and because the paintings offer so little in the form of bravura brushwork, this sense of artifice is heightened when you get up close to them.
Looking down the avenue of hills established in The Valley of Winds, the effect is almost of a series of stage flats, receding into the unconvincing perspective of a proscenium arch theatre. Because Andrews' technique is so close to collage, he has inevitable difficulty in making his compositions seem unified. Take the kangaroos bouncing along in the foreground of Near Malu Kata. There is the sense that what you are witnessing is an immensely sophisticated version of what children do when they stick transfers on to the pictures on the backs of cereal packets: Andrews' kangaroos seem arbitrarily placed, grafted on to, rather than incorporated into, the composition of his painting.
These might seem reasons to dislike the Ayers Rock paintings, but the uneveness, the sense of slippage and artificiality they convey is in fact one of the main sources of their interest. This relates Andrews to that enquiring, critical strand of painting which evolved out of Pop Art, whose leading practitioners might include David Hockney, Richard Hamilton and even Gerhard Richter. Andrews is rarely bracketed with such artists but his proximity to them, here, reflects interestingly on what seems to be his theme.
When a group of the Ayers Rock paintings was first shown, at the Anthony D'Offay Gallery in 1986, An-drews introduced them by quoting from the famous old Anglican hymn by Augustus Montague Toplady: ''Rock of ages, cleft for me / Let me hide myself in thee.'' Andrews was fascinated by Ayers Rock, he went on to say, because it represented for him ''a radiant incarnation of Toplady's hymn. Everything the hymn expresses metaphorically to Christians is a matter of fact to Aborigines. They belong to the Rock in the way that something belongs to us.''
Andrews has spent most of his life as an artist worrying over his own sense of belonging, or lack of it. The chief theme of his paintings, seen through the lens of this particular concern, is the danger of investing too much in one's sense of self- importance. It was introduced by an extraordinary picture of 1952, painted when Andrews was still a Slade student and now owned by the Tate, A Man Who Suddenly Fell Over. He seems vaguely Churchillian, this tumbling hulk of a man, the living illustration of an epigram. Pride comes before a fall, perhaps.
Much of Andrews' subsequent painting would seem to be about ways of circumventing such heavy, vul-nerable pride, and achieving that state of weightless un-selfconsciousness which, the artist came to believe, represents true fulfilment. This is why he took to painting schools of fish in the mid-1970s: emblems, in the artist's personal iconography, of ideal communities, where a sense of un-selfconscious belonging is built in by instinct. And it is why he painted the strange series of pictures titled Lights at the start of that same dec-ade. These featured landscapes through which drifted a solitary hot-air balloon - a symbol, according to Andrews, of the self ''sloughing off the ego''.
One of the Lights paintings has been included in the Whitechapel show, and rightly, since the Ayers Rock paintings might be said to represent the end of a journey begun in the earlier series. The vagrant self finds its true destination in Ayers Rock, as conceived by the Aborigines. It is a place not to be owned but to be belonged to: a universal home.
But Andrews' paintings of Ayers Rock convey the unattainability of this ideal for the artist himself. As Jonathan Raban astutely remarks in his catalogue essay, they picture ''a landscape that is instinct with meaning - for someone else.'' Andrews paints what are, for the Aborigines, the holiest parts of the Rock. Yet his painstaking, photo- based style, producing this numbed, post-Pop transcription of things, heightens the sense that these are images constructed at a vast geographical and mental remove from the place that occasioned them. It seems significant, too, that when the painting becomes most nearly expressive - a dark cliff- face, washed in Ayers Rock grit, or a gash in the side of the mountain rendered like a screaming mouth - what it seems to express is the inhospitability of the landscape.
Andrews' Ayers Rock paintings are unusual additions to the canon of late twentieth-century painting be-cause they conjoin such unlikely traditions: the old ideal of landscape painting as a form of sublimated reli-gious art is revived in works painted in a style that speaks of late modernist alienation. Whether this uneasy mixture was intended by the painter remains unclear, but either way these are fascinating paintings.