A Retrospective at the Barbican Art gallery
Helen Chadwick (18 May 1953 – 15 March 1996) was a British sculptor, photographer and installation artist. In 1987, she became one of the first women artists to be nominated for the Turner Prize. Chadwick was known for "challenging stereotypical perceptions of the body in elegant yet unconventional forms”. In 2004 The Barbican Art Gallery mounted a retrospective of her work and produced an accompanying book. Like many catalogues that accompany a retrospective,
this book is a passionate review, full of hyperbole.
Marina Warner writes in the preface that Helen Chadwick was the first to experiment with many process and materials that have now become “intrinsic to contemporary art”. Indeed RedBlack Lawrence, winner of the graduate prize at Wimbledon Collage two years ago, won on a work based on bodily fluids - a direct line could be drawn between Chadwick and artists such as RedBlack Lawrence.
Warner quotes Chadwick extensively. Chadwick believed that “you can metamorphose according to what you explore.” She worried “at received ideas: about gender, about sex, about dirt.” Her work explores duality: “the permitted and the forbidden, the poisonous and the nourishing.” Chadwick wrote that she would “assert the sovereign right of every individual to confront the private uncertainties that oppress us collectively” and that “Art, like crying, is an act of self-repair, to shed the natural tears that free us, make us strong.”
Warner comments that Chadwick wanted to minimise the power of vision and “aimed at passing beyond spectacle to engage all faculties, to quicken the senses of smell and of touch” while also, contradictorily, commenting that Chadwick was a “passionate questor for beauty”. Warner claims that even recognition for artists such as Louise Bourgeois can be attributed in some way to artists like Chadwick who “reclaimed… an earlier generation…who also wrought original metaphors for embodies experience.”
Warner knew Chadwick personally and writes passionately about her, leaving one with a strong sense of the person Chadwick was but aware that the analysis of her work may be biased. Ideas around nudity and feminism have changed since 2004 and an acceptance of Chadwick’s justification for nudity in 1986 feels outdated. What becomes clear is that Chadwick researched extensively and stitched together many different references to create work that was both serious and witty.