Helen Chadwick

Barbican Art Gallery

Ego Geometria Sum (I Am Geometry), 1983, is the title of the first body of work to have earned Helen Chadwick significant attention. Leonardo, who inscribed his ideal male body in the overlapping figures of the circle and square, would undoubtedly have been pleased to have made such a statement, but it’s harder to know what the intellectual reduction involved in geometricizing the human form implied for the English artist, who died in 1996 aged just forty-two. Mark Sladen, the curator of this first retrospective, follows critic Michael Newman’s interpretation of the work as evoking a “classical and rational heritage,” but one might equally see in it a quasi-Romantic alienation. Its ten large plywood forms are highly schematic reductions of everyday objects—a boat, a couch, a baby carriage—covered with ghostly photographic images, many of the artist herself, nude. The organic body hardly seems in harmony with the geometric forms on which it has been overlaid; rather, its poses seem to express an unfulfilled yearning to conform themselves to their own structures of desire. In a follow-up sequence of photographs, Ego Geometria Sum: The Labours, 1986, Chadwick, again unclothed but with her face always hidden, is shown grappling with the objects, often (though she looks rather athletic despite her petite build) uneasily pitted against their cumbersome bulk.

Ego Geometria Sum and its continuation constitute a powerful body of work, updating ’70s-style body art by subsuming performance to sculpture and photography. Yet Chadwick’s development from this point on is disappointing, largely because of a surprising insensitivity to the photographic medium, and more specifically through a weak conception of its physical presentation. Not that she doesn’t try to deal with the issue; many of her works take the form of shaped light-box transparencies, while others are placed in heavy colored frames. Yet her real investment is in the arrangement of the materials to be photographed—raw innards in the “Meat Abstracts,” 1989, flowers and an oyster in Eat Me, 1991, and so on—while their appearance in the photographs themselves, though described in Mary Horlock’s catalogue essay as “sensual” and “creating a sense of luxuriance,” seems flat, inert, and coloristically undistinguished. By contrast, Roses, ca. 1924, a tiny black-and-white image by Tina Modotti in the Modotti/Weston show that was concurrently on view in the upstairs gallery, has more presence than any of Chadwick’s colorful, outsize photographs, its blossoms pressing mightily against the paper’s four edges and the plane that would isolate them from real space.

In the context of recent British art, Chadwick supplies a missing link between dryly intellectual yet body-conscious work like Mary Kelly’s Post-Partum Document, 1973–79, and that of blood-and-guts sensationalists such as Damien Hirst, Sarah Lucas, and Marc Quinn—if anybody wants one. Her feeling for materials makes the later Chadwick most interesting as a sculptor. My favorite among her post-Geometria works is Cacao, 1994, a bubbling fountain of warm, almost fecal liquid chocolate that seduces first by aroma before one even sees it. Piss Flowers, 1991–92, is a garden of rough stalagmite-like forms rising from floral bases. Chadwick made it by urinating, along with her boyfriend David Notarius, into the Canadian snow, then casting the cavities they formed. The process may have been, as Chadwick put it, “a metaphysical conceit for the union of two people expressing themselves bodily,” but the sheer formal oddity of the result transcends her idea’s far-fetched wit.

Barry Schwabsky