Philippe Bradshaw

Artist whose work was 'absolutely mad'
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The life of Philippe Bradshaw, like his work, demonstrated an eccentricity more extreme than that of the average English artist and there was perhaps a genuinely dangerous pitch to his recklessness, his f-you panache, which stood out even amongst the loud antics of his peers those fabled YBAs or "Young British Artists". None of this diminishes the genuine shock and loss of his untimely death aged 39, nor the manner of his going, his body having been found in the Seine.

Bradshaw, whose mother was French, spoke the language like a native and after years of somewhat sordid London living had moved to Paris some five years ago and seemed solidly happy in that city, for both domestically and especially in terms of his career things had rarely seemed so promising. His dealer and patron there was the highly successful gallerist Thaddaeus Ropac, who had persuaded him to live in France and helped find him studio space. As Ropac regrets,

What makes this so terrible and surprising is that everything was just starting to go so well for Philippe. It's such a waste

because it took him a long time to get this success: he always seemed to be a bit behind the rest of his contemporaries but now it was all happening.

Indeed Bradshaw, who was notorious in Britain for working in an unconverted ladies' lavatory, a studio found for him by his close friend Tracey Emin, by contrast was building a prestigious career on the Continent.

He had recently collaborated with the choreographer Merce Cunningham, he had commissions from major collectors, he had just been working in Austria, had exhibitions from Saarbrücken to Salamanca and this month was supposed to start work in Texas and San Francisco. None of this would suggest Bradshaw took his own life, but despite the relative stability of his Parisian existence there remained a certain extremeness, notably glamorous at times. For, in common with a long lineage of English artists, Bradshaw enjoyed radical social contrasts of high and low - hanging out with his mate Malcolm McLaren at his favourite lesbian tapas bar, mingling with the sort of dealers who don't deal art or cavorting with European aristocrats of the more decadent strain. Ropac admits:

Really nobody knows what happened, there was no indication, no sign, he was always nervous about things and a bit of a wild kid who did unusual moves. But I don't think he really planned anything, maybe it was a certain use of substances, a certain drinking, going to the edge. I had him on the phone the day before he went missing, he'd made a strange phone call to his mother and she was worried and called the gallery. But I was not so worried, he was often in these anxious moods.

Whatever the circumstances, and there have even been rumours of foul play within the narco demi-monde, Bradshaw went missing from his apartment on the Friday and his body was only retrieved from the river on the Sunday. " Nothing has been confirmed, nothing is known," as Ropac acknowledges.

Bradshaw, whose father was English, was born in Lincolnshire and after studying at Leicester Polytechnic moved down to London and enrolled at Goldsmiths College. Bradshaw was there from 1985 to 1988, the period when Goldsmiths was the veritable crucible of the "new" British art that was soon to be so celebrated, and his fellow students included Damien Hirst et al. In 1993 Bradshaw formed an art group, "Andrea + Philippe", with Andrea Mason and they commenced on an ambitious project of glazing and improving wartime bunkers around the country, subsequently creating a fictitious estate agent to try and market these refurbished properties. As a collaborative team they also crashed the prestigious international exhibition "Documenta X" and created two sons, Fîla and Pépé.

From 1998 Bradshaw branched out on his own, building a distinctive oeuvre out of such elements as amateur porn, grotesque sex toys, throwaway debris, KY wrestling and techno music played so loud as to become a sculptural object in itself. For a solo at the Showroom in London Bradshaw produced a disposable lighter entitled David & Goliath featuring the famous penis of Michelangelo's sculpture. For an exhibition in Bethnal Green, London, Bradshaw stacked up his numerous empty beer cans and then urinated all over them, a performance entitled An Inventory of Everything I Drank. And on leaving London he noted and piled up everything from his Brixton studio before setting it all on fire, making a film of the process. As even Emin is quoted as saying, "His art is absolutely mad."

But Bradshaw's trademark work was probably his chain-mail installations, in which he would project pictures, whether Warhol's Electric Chair or a Fragonard beauty, on to anodised aluminium curtains which not only obscured the original image but lent them a delicious glitter and glow. These aluminium chain tapestries were as beautiful as they were sinister, their often pornographic sources transformed into a waterfall of shimmering pixels, like a Baroque curtain cutting off some sex-shop backroom.

And they were certainly successful, whether featuring in a group show like "Sex & the British" curated by Norman Rosenthal of the Royal Academy or starring solo at the highly influential gallery Deitch Projects in New York's SoHo. As Bradshaw put it,

We enjoy the cynical, the empty when we can overcome the icon, we enjoy being what we are: iconoclasts, breakers of images, in bondage.

He is buried in Perpignan, where his parents live.

Adrian Dannatt