The Vessel of the Self

Beatrice Faust, May 2000

In 1999, Godwin Bradbeer told Mark Pennings - ‘I am committed to the human figure - that where my loyalty lies’. Bradbeer’s concern for the body is not for its academic anatomy but for what he calls ‘subcutaneous order’ - existential, occasionally lightened by subtle erotic promise, often tormented, always mysterious.

This collection of self-portrait photographs from 1968 to 1978 represents one approach to the problematic male nude, which had fallen out of fashion by the mid-nineteenth century and has not been restored by Gay Liberation. Gay artists have revived the nude as a subject - not out of concern for the body itself but as a vehicle for ideology. Francis Bacon made the body a metaphor for chaos and lost it altogether; Tom of Finland glorified it as an emblem of gay fascism; for Robert Mapplethorpe, the body was an erotic engine; Joel Peter Witkin exploited the body’s parts for queerly subversive collages.

Bradbeer respectfully offers the body as a vessel of the self but of a self that he must transcend. To engage with transubstantiating the flesh into a drawing is to testify to human possibility for ‘catastrophe and exhilaration’. His work in various media, yields an art of nuances echo and hommages where manipulated photographs may look like drawings and drawings may look like solarisations. There works defy figuration: they are mediative, contemplative, often dark, isolated, self possessed, pre-occupied with subtle, non-naturalistic hues and tones.

The bloc of self-portrait photographs cover the ten years between youth and manhood. The images reveal a maturing self-echoing and foreshadowing the artist’s other explorations in painting and drawing. Bradbeer inverts the traditional practice of using photography to document a reality in order to paint it; he uses the camera to document existential states - his own. This solves ethical problem of owning images as he makes the camera into a tool of introspection without invasion of someone else’s privacy of theft of their image.

And, yes, the maturing self is growing up and growing up is sometimes egotistical. These photographs are indeed portraits of the artist and a young man. Bradbeer mugs for the camera, posturing and modelling emotions that transcend the everyday self. As well as manipulating his own body in front of the camera, he manipulates the images in the processing. Dissecting these nudes would reveal not muscles, tendons or bones but the nerve impulses, humours and mesmeric fluids that comprise the spirituality that perfumes all his work. The self of these photographs in more naive, more transparent than is his more recent work but the sacral impulse is clearly evident.

Beatrice Faust
May 2000