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Alan Michael, ‘Casual (I)’, 2008, oil on canvas

Alan Michael’s exhibition title Mood: Casual may state that the mood is to be a casual one, but his paintings ooze such technical precision they hardly portray nonchalance. The complex layering of detached objects, isolated words in trim typeface, vintage graphic design and intricate photorealism, quickly establish that it is not for the audience to be blasé . Indeed, the exhibition title refers to the free attitude of the artist in the cutting, tweaking and realistic rendering of images and ideas from a wealth of sources, an arbitrary process that generated each of the 18 paintings by Michael, the most recent participant of Art Now, Tate Britain’s long-running series of exhibitions showcasing UK contemporary artists.

Those familiar with Alan Michael’s work will recognise some, including ‘Cars and Houses’, 2008, from his solo show Touch Void at Edinburgh’s Talbot Rice Gallery earlier this year. London gets a smaller offering and where Touch Void opted to provide the audience with a loose scrapbook of the artist’s Nouvelle Vague influences —in the form of images from Jean-Luc Godard movies, cuttings from fashion magazines and Jean Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore —Tate Britain offers no such clues. In fact, the introductory text likens the exhibition to a ‘mood board’ of the artist’s practice and emphasises the enigmatic quality of Michael’s ‘beguiling and impenetrable’, ‘puzzling and eclectic’ work.

As Michael identifies, there are three ‘formats’ on display here: text-based paintings, photorealist images and canvases offering an ‘uneasy synthesis’ of the two. Two of the text works ‘Casual (I)’, 2008, and ‘Casual (II)’, 2008, mark the start of the exhibition, the first depicting white text spelling CASUAL on blue ground and the second blue, chunkier letters on white. The irony lies in the fact that the meticulous execution of the font and the careful arrangement of two letters per line belies anything ‘casual’ and guarantees the clarity of each letter while frustrating a clear reading of the whole word. Furthermore, a glimpse at the edges of the canvas betrays the simplicity of blue and white by exposing dribbles, casual indeed, of colours beneath those presented.

‘Car and Houses’, 2008, a modest, unframed canvas, hangs in the centre of the far wall and visitors to the gallery, myself included, are mesmerically drawn to it. It brilliantly encapsulates the immediate appeal of Michael’s photorealist works, the irresistible tension between the apparent spontaneity of the image captured—here the passing reflection of a tenement block in the waxed body of a car—with the remarkable artistic dexterity of its execution in oil.

Acutely observed objects, particularly glassware (an unmistakable nod to the historical genre of still-life) are seamlessly combined with randomly plucked references, ‘GRASSROOTS’, 2008, for example referring to a health food shop. Each work is a collage, the smooth photorealism of which is unsettling for no distinction is made by the artist’s hand between what has been drawn from close observation or from a fleeting glance or simply snatched from memory. In two works, both called ‘Untitled (Glassware)’, 2006, Michael depicts clear vases in front of a snippet view of white stiletto-booted feet and spliced text. Here, the artist commits an ultimate act of appropriation by visually quoting an earlier painting of his own, ‘Apologia Pro Vita Positiva’, 2005, itself a work of fragmented photorealist layering.

The only framed works are a series of new paintings entitled ‘Origins’, 2008, inspired by a collection of designer greeting cards, all of which present a variation on a theme with blocks of brilliant colour and the word ‘love’. In the context of this exhibition they mark a departure from an otherwise cool palette and their graphic quality yields a solid flatness at odds with the interplay of perspectival depth and mirrored surface that is characteristic of his photorealist canvases.

Kate Cowcher is an art historian and critic