Influence is a powerful word in art, and the line between influencer and the influenced is always thin and tumultuous. But there’s little debate on Helen Chadwick’s impact on 20th century Brit-art, specifically on the Young British Artists, and more generally on the contemporary scene fermenting in late 1980s and ’90s. Chadwick’s oeuvre came to a sudden halt with her unexpected death in 1996 at the age of 42— but renowned artists such as Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin carry her work within theirs. She inspired them not just with her art, but also through her proactive and provocative teaching at art schools such as Chelsea College of Art and Design, Goldsmiths, and the London Institute.
If the measure of good art is longevity and relevance, Chadwick’s exhibition at the Richard Saltoun Gallery in West London this month has both. It’s the first solo show of her works in ten years, and includes a range of 20 photos and sculptures, unleashing her meaty calculations and visceral philosophy of the beautiful and the grotesque. Her pieces could easily be mistaken to be from a young contemporary artist, though the impact would have been much more outlandish back then.
Chadwick lived and worked in Hackney, which is like the Bushwick of London. Long before its present “up-and-coming” status, it was a cheaper solution for working artists (Alexander McQueen, Rachel Whiteread), rather than a trendy alternative. So Chadwick, with her Uma-Thurman-in-Pulp-Fiction hair, no bra, and elusive smile, was a pioneer by practice and proximity. She also won numerous awards, was the first woman shortlisted for the Turner Prize in 1987, had a notorious show at the Serpentine in ‘94, and a year later an exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
Her art is an obsession with materials and texture, and what some call feminist. “I don’t know whether necessarily she would have categorize herself as such,” says Niamh Coghalan, gallery manager and one of the curators of the exhibition. “Yet she was a female artist, she was working with subject matter and materials that were sort of frowned upon and shied away from, and a lot of her work can be quite sexually explicit. And she was embracing different ways of representing stereotypes of the female.”
Chadwick’s work is often described as “seductively repulsive.” But looking at her gory Meat Abstract (1989) series, where she carefully arranges organs alongside neat compositions of, for example, a silk and silver table set, I don’t see repulsion or seduction. I see something much more self-aware, designed to disorient your emotional reaction: disgust vs. desire. She is not seducing to sell, nor is she contriving narratives of repulsion. Rather, she deconstructs the inner and outer realms of human (and often female) embodiment – the flesh, the emotions, the geometries – to expose something less threatening and more vulnerable. The fact that she died because of a viral heart infection is a cruel testament to this vulnerability.
This disparaging reality is strongest in Philosopher’s Fear of Flesh (1989), where a hairy, human belly is placed below a stretch of plucked chicken skin. They’re stacked on top of each other in an hourglass-shaped light box (the shape is my least favorite, the most obvious). In the piece, Chadwick exposes the mundane manners in which we accept or reject beauty and ugliness. Again, the underlying practice is to diminish these dwelling binaries, which she presents within a humorous yet closely investigated realm. A realm that although not entirely original (think Anya Gallaccio), and by now widely incorporated in popular visual culture, Chadwick imagined in a clean and uncanny aesthetic language.
This language peaks in Piss Flower (1991-2), the most famous piece on display. To make it, Chadwick and her partner David Notarius peed in the snow and she made casts from the indentations. The product is a set of floral and phallic-looking sculptures presented on a grass surface, accompanied by a poem: “Drink me harder, my delight / swell to my bursting pretty sluice/ and piss a posy / deeper, dear/ here – into my snow white,” which is as witty as it is beautiful. This is Chadwick at her best – she inverts, literally and figuratively, what the society finds disposable or otherwise absolutely vital, reshaping its purpose as she pleases.
The gallery’s small interior underwhelms the full effect of the original Piss Flower, which was more elaborate, but they instead show Adore;Abhore (1994) for the first time. “A lot of her works weren’t exhibited during her lifetime because she never had the opportunity or the time to show them,” says Coghalan. In this piece, the words are separately instilled on fur-covered boards that are hung next to each. They are bemusing yet unremarkable.
Then there is Billy Bud (1994), which at first looks like any other flower-comme-vagina photo. But this one comes with a twist: zooming in on the bud, you will notice a carefully disguised photo of a male rectum. Like a double twist in a box-office psychological thriller, no matter how exhausted the theme, you still appreciate the effort. I Thee Wed (1993) sculpture is in the same streak— more decorative (i.e. sellable) than her other works and again sexually satirical. Chadwick creates five bronze, phallic vegetables on a white plinth, and wraps each with a ring of fur. They allude to a hand, and the only “finger” without a ring is the marriage one. It’s a great reflection of Chadwick as an artist and the time she was working in: dubious of marriage, in love with matter, and doing enough homework to avoid the predictable and arouse a new generation.
Helen Chadwick: Works from the Estate runs until June 28th, 2013, at Richard Saltoun Gallery, 111 Great Titchfield Street, London UK.