Reflections on 'self' and mortality

Helen Chadwick
October 22, 2004

When Helen Chadwick died in 1996 at the age of 43, she was arguably the most radical British artist andcertainly one of the most influential andadmired teachers on the British art scene. This catalogue, published to accompany a retrospective of Chadwick held at the Barbican Art Gallery, has a preface by Marina Warner and essays by Mark Sladen (the editor), Mary Horlock and Eva Martischnig. Each essay deals in its own way with the rigorous but sadly unfinished agenda Chadwick set herself.

The cover image Vanity (1986) to a large extent tells the whole story, but sadly the photograph - which both presents and sums up the Chadwick story - is not in the exhibition. The image is a compellingly baroque but perfectly circular photographic self-portrait of the artist naked from the waist up, languidly supporting a half-body-sized gold-framed oval mirror. A fine gold chain perfectly describes the contour of her neck as it turns into shoulder and thorax, and white muslin and white ostrich feathers soften her edges as her picture meets the frame. Near the centre of the image, one of her breasts meets its virtual self when her nipple touches the looking glass, pointing us into the background where five golden spheroids roll into a retrospective gallery space beyond.

Each essay draws attention to this range of emotions, alchemy, ideas and contrasts. From an orgiastic and intoxicating vat of hot bubbling milk chocolate sitting in the centre of one of the galleries and catalogue pages to the very Seventies Piss Flowers , white-painted bronze casts of the shapes cut by her and her partner's warm urine falling on deep Canadian snow. Warner's preface sums up Chadwick's oeuvre, citing "her inspired improvisation with process (photocopying, butchery, chemistry), her experiments with materials (fur to Swarfega) and her use of London's manifold skills (from traditional trades to refuse recycling)".

Her work was adventurous and ahead of the pack, Sladen argues. "She understood the power of spectacle," a statement he qualifies with:

"Chadwick chose the most visceral, gorgeous, repellent and seductive materials." But the catalogue essays do not dig deep into where the artist was coming from, and provide a very short list of artists Chadwick was apparently inspired by - the big names - Frida Kahlo and Louise Bourgeois - are there, but surprisingly no Joseph Beuys.

Martischnig uses biographical detail rather than materials as a way in, starting with Chadwick's first few days in an incubator, on to suburban Croydon and finally to her spiritual home, her mother's Greece. Throughout we get the feeling of someone searching for self - what the book tells us in the end is that in her short life she covered a lot of artistic ground but was still deeply immersed in discovering who "she" was. Martischnig concludes her essay with a Chadwick quote: "Use the mirror to return back through the eye into Paradise, into unity, into passive surrender into the glass."

This catalogue is essential for every art school library and any serious student of British contemporary art.

Stephen Farthing is a painter and Royal Academician currently living in Long Island, New York, US.

Helen Chadwick

Editor - Mark Sladen
Publisher - Barbican Art Gallery and Hatje Cantz Publishers
Pages - 168
Price - £22.00
ISBN - 3 7757 1393 X

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