Man in the Cold

Peter Westwood

Working beyond ‘the end of art’

This is the so-called abstract art. The position which religion then took is now taken by art. 

For the sake of progress we must suppress the notion of ‘art’ as an aesthetic speculation.1

These statements made in 1925 by the Dutch artist Theo van Doesburg informed some of the central foundations of Modernism. 

An innermost problem:
How does one work within the seemingly anachronistic and conventional idiom of figuration, representing the human form, and yet address the significance of the ‘abstract field’, an essential space of authority and clarity. How does one progress with the knowledge that the antithesis of what one might explore is most valid, without risking ambivalence and uncertainty?

Post modernity has pinpointed a greater awareness of the infinite possibilities of parallax, allowing for the freedom to integrate fresh information and malleable ideas and memories into multiple combinations and new syntheses. Post modernity provides a reprieve from the necessarily absolutist platforms established during late Modernism, providing speculative opportunities to imply infinite possibilities from seemingly inconsistent or ambiguous vantage points. Currently we exist in a period where we address an open vista, where one can consider the possibility of teaching an old dog some new tricks by simply looking at things from different angles.

The anxiety of a man in the cold

Godwin Bradbeer’s work does not visibly embody the characteristics of post modernism. However from our current and expansive post modern vista we may consider and reassess some seemingly inconsistent impetuses within Bradbeer’s work that are prompted by a desire to address the convention of figuration in relation to the ‘abstract field’. As a young artist Godwin Bradbeer developed an interest in the human figure within a climate defined by the dominance of ideas relating to the supremacy of the ‘abstract field’. Many artists within Bradbeer’s generation were subjugated to the cold because some were drawn to principles embedded in humanism, others were suspicious of the efficiencies of conclusive doctrinal principles within late Modernism, while notable others (Gerhard Richter) simply suffered doubt and anxiety brought about by an attraction to the potential embodied in ambivalence.

Bradbeer has remained as open and amenable to ideas as an artist as he does as a person. Throughout his career he has chosen to remain open to dialectics within contemporary art while negotiating a polemic of substance and specificity within his practice. Therefore in relation to these developmental years as an artist, Bradbeer approaches his work as a series of options on a rectangular surface, an enclosed space where moves may be limited but where there is a constant anticipation and temptation to find the immeasurable within that space.

However throughout his career Bradbeer has also remained committed to the representation of the human figure. He considers the human subject as providing limitlessness as a motif “without loss of universal recognition ... [and providing] a visa to everyone”2. His drawings offer representations of the human figure as a type of generic but absolute form in much the same way as reduced forms within abstraction have been used to signify the essential and inarguable. Over years of practice Bradbeer has reflected upon, and considered, the divide between figuration and abstraction as a central problem in the representation of ‘being’.  This poses a dialectic within Bradbeer’s work hinting at an essential anxiety – the figure in isolation or alienation within the ‘Field’, embodied in a form of schematic representation, centrally positioned, and almost as a diagrammatic plan for ‘being’, beyond a contextual association yet embodied within a sense of idealism.

While Bradbeer’s ‘field’ is the site of human alienation these drawings of figures are ‘somethings’ bound by the limitations of representation. They embody a sense of trying to define the ‘thing-in-itself’. These figurative ‘somethings’ are metaphors for ideas implying ruin and loss, and an overwhelming lament about being held within something. This is an unvarying constant we all hold within our conscious understanding – the anxiety embodied through our awareness of our own consciousness, our own state of ‘being’.

Therefore Bradbeer’s enquiry into the figure suggests a fascination with the idea of an ‘essential copy’, a type of portrait of existence. And therefore Bradbeer represents the human condition as an entity as opposed to simply representing the figure.

Bradbeer’s figures are defined through processes implying a distressed surface enhancing the implication of anxiety within the human condition. His fixations with surface, scoring and marking, are less about ornament but are more related to materiality as actuality and excavation as a metaphor. On the one hand Bradbeer reinforces flatness and on the other he suggests a penetrating depth, in turn implying that his working processes are informed by a psychological anxiety to make contact with the vulnerable centre of the human figure contained within or behind image and surface. Bradbeer’s techniques invariably involve rubbing and upsetting the surface, a technique alluding to the exposure of something beneath. The cutting and scoring of the paper brings attention to the vulnerable and flimsy nature of the corporeal. And we are reminded of surface as a ‘hide’ or covering, while the seemingly non-descriptive whimsical and insufficient graffito marking that floats across the surface suggests an insistent imperative to penetrate deeper and to perceive. They are about knowing the body through pleasure and control in a way that is deferred. They glimmer with sexual, aesthetic and spiritual associations where we are reminded of the corporeal on the one hand, and extravagant technique on the other, coupled with a desire for psychological penetration.

Baudelaire remarked that, “the beautiful is always strange,” by which he means, of course, that it is always strangely familiar’3.

Baudelaire also identified beauty as a state between the fleeting and the eternal. Beauty is a time bound event existing only in that moment of recognition of a beautiful thing, and ceasing to exist a moment later, though invariably leaving a trace through memory.

Bradbeer connects his work to a long held vernacular of beauty within art. Beauty ‘in its democratic appeal remains a potent instrument for change’ – ‘nothing redeems like beauty’4. And while beauty is perceived to connect to something amorphous rather than tangible and does imply an array of variables across cultures and time, the idea of beauty is also a constant, coupled with the potential for a celebration ‘of all that has been previously uncelebrated’.

Various writers (in the previous decade and currently; notably American writer Dave Hickey) have speculated that a central concern, and problem, for this decade may embody questions relating to the issue of beauty in contemporary art. Bradbeer’s receptivity to ideas of beauty is clearly marked in his lifelong and perpetual attempt to represent the simple human form embodied within a sense of ideal that reaches back to Platonic idealism. He engages with a long-standing sense of beauty and purity without entering into the monotony of a naive idealism. Bradbeer’s figures are fraught and caught. They are sited within (and exist as) distressed surfaces, as an exceptional, unusual, or abnormal thing or event, and as constructs. And while Bradbeer recognizes that the value of beauty has always been a great comfort and reconciliation within life, his drawings deeply imply anxiety for the individual through the lack of essential contexts; an anxiety embodied in the representation of the un-clothed figure contained within a de-lineated and possibly antagonistic space.

‘I fancy that one day the mental event that is beauty will be X-ray photographed’. ‘It will show a suddenly swelling diffused glow that wanes gradually’5.

Visually these drawings evoke an X-ray. They imply an internal perspective.  In actuality this is simply a result of Bradbeer’s process of working the surface to expose fragments and aspects of earlier stages of the drawing in an attempt to reach back to hold on to something born earlier within the layering process.

However Bradbeer’s drawings are not derived from photomechanical (and henceforth cultural) sources but are ‘inventions’ based on memory, implying a glimpse or fleetingly ‘second nature’ insight into the human body. These works are based on physiological knowledge, perceptual understanding of the human body and a familiarity with body as a phenomenological event. Therefore in every case these drawings are not based on the objectivity of removed study, and hence reject irony. In many ways they are a foil to the machine embodied in Modernism and are more about knowing the body as a deeply held idea. But conversely they are also anonymous and iconic, attempting to embody a sense of frailty through their worked surfaces and alluding to strength through their uncompromising representation. And in this Bradbeer’s drawings are reminiscent of sculptural figures, polished, scored and marked, placing the body as an historic artifact, artificially ruined and appearing as ‘the last inheritance of an antiquity still visible in the modern world’6.

‘The broken pediment, the ruined columns should bear witness to the miraculous fact that the … edifice has withstood even the most elemental forces of destruction’7.

Classical humanism holds to ideas related to an eternal and unchangeable perception of human nature. Bradbeer’s work is not amenable to transgression and to breaking with long held conceptions of the constancy of humanism. However while these drawings are located in a space that reflects the sensory fabric of human existence, they also suggest a frail uncertain and perhaps fraught position. From our current perspective Bradbeer’s drawings may have been made as reparations across a modernist rupture.

Peter Westwood
(Peter Westwood is an artist, writer and curator based in Melbourne.)

1. Theo Van Doesburg, (essay) The End of Art, Art and Social Change: A Critical Reader (Ed. Will Bradley and Charles Esche), p76. TATE Publishing, 2007
2. Godwin Bradbeer (statement relating to his work), 2009
3. Dave Hickey, The Invisible Dragon, Four Essays on Beauty, p18. Art Issues Press Los Angeles, USA,1994
4. Peter Schjeldahl, (essay) Notes on Beauty, Uncontrollable Beauty (Ed. Bill Beckley), p55. Allworth Press, USA, 1998
5. ibid, p54
6. Walter Benjamin, (collected essays) The Ruin, The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media, p180. Harvard University Press, USA, 2008
7. ibid,



Peter Westwood