OBITUARY:Helen Chadwick

Helen Chadwick was one of contemporary art's most provocative and profound figures. A perfectionist who revelled in excess, an awesome intellectual who applauded irreverence, Chadwick was the most important artist of her generation, and a crucial inspiration to a multitude of younger artists.

From her early edible body casts made in the Seventies as part of the Flux movement, to the hermaphrodite blooms of her bronze Piss Flowers, made from casting the patterns of male and female urine in snow, Helen Chadwick made her art splice the sensuous with the cerebral in a quest to bend, stretch and dissolve age-old certainties of who and what we are. Whether she was casting lambs' tongues in bronze, photographing flowers clustered on the surface of domestic fluids, working with digital technology or commissioning specially woven carpet, she revelled in fusing a mass of unconventional materials and drawing on sources that range across myth, science and anatomy - in order to express and celebrate a world of flux, fluidity and possibility.

Helen Chadwick's work may have dealt with ambiguity but it was never of itself ambiguous. Probably her most notorious recent piece was Cacao, the suggestive fountain of molten chocolate that formed the centrepiece of her one-woman show "Effluvia" at the Serpentine Gallery in July 1994 (and which put British art on the front pages of Brazil's newspapers when the piece was installed at the Sao Paulo Biennal that autumn). But this unforgettable work, which showed Chadwick using all her destabilising powers of seduction and revulsion, and defied any single response or reading, was just part of a long and complex investigation into how art can capture sensation and reflect states of being, but still be vitally accessible.

Long before the current artistic obsession with the human body as a means for exploring identity, Chadwick had declared that "my apparatus is a body x [multiplied by] sensory systems with which to correlate experience", and from the mid- Seventies she tapped into her own physical form to extend and dissolve accepted limits of physical and mental existence. In "Of Mutability" (exhibited at the ICA in 1984-86) collaged photocopies presented her naked figure floating amongst a cornucopia of animal and vegetable matter, while her "Viral Landscapes" (1988-89) employed computer technology to superimpose microscopic images of Chadwick's own body cells across epic photographs of the Pembrokeshire coast. Here was proof that the computer could be used in a way that replaced the technological with the subjective.

More recently however, she had employed other vehicles for exploring the personal and the physical. Last year the Tate Gallery purchased Enfleshings 1 (1989), one of her series of "Meat Abstracts" and "Meat Lamps" which present raw meat and offal in exquisite illuminated photopieces that represent the stuff that makes up us all. In April 1995 she had her first solo show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York with her "Wreaths to Pleasure" (1992-94), a series of 13 large circular photopieces which show arrangements of vividly coloured flowers floating on the surface of domestic fluids. These "Bad Blooms" - as she also called them - where black-red roses float on a creamy bath of ice-blue household paint, or an orchid comes to rest in a puddle of window cleaner, mix and merge apparent distinctions beween organic and toxic, fluid and static, clean and dirty, in a characteristically exquisite Chadwickian celebration of unholy alliances.

Helen Chadwick was exhibited world-wide both in solo and mixed shows, she was nominated for the Turner Prize in 1987, she received countless awards and commissions and her work is in major collections both in the UK and across the globe. She was a consummate professional who involved herself in every aspect of the production and presentation of her work with a ruthless and minuscule eye for detail, just as she was always, even when wrestling with the pump of a chocolate fountain, immaculately, almost impossibly, stylish in appearance.

But Chadwick's perfectionism and love of paradox did not impinge on her emotional and intellectual generosity. With that severe haircut framing a mischevous (sometimes almost demonic) grin, she was a pristine hedonist, a wicked impish maverick who was tremendous company as wel as being a loyal friend of limitless generosity. Chadwick was half Greek (she was born in Croydon and studied at Brighton Polytechnic and Chelsea School of Art), and whenever her punishing schedule would allow she and her partner and collaborator David Notarius would escape from their terraced house in Hackney, east London, and return to these roots in a small house in rural Greece. However, Chadwick always insisted that she represented the Dionysian rather than the Apollonian side of her classical heritage, and this was reflected in the visual, vivacious and sensory extravaganzas presented both in her work and her life.

This abhorrence of absolutes and eagerness to push at the boundaries of our existence had just taken Chadwick into her most sensitive territory yet: that of human fertility. Shortly before her death (she died unexpectedly on Friday of heart failure) she had completed a residency at the Assisted Conception Unit at King's College Hospital where she had immersed herself in the intricate processes behind assisted conception in order to present a series of remarkable and exceptionally beautiful photopieces. These microphotographs of human embryos, placed in a jewel-like arrangement with other images from the natural world, are a sensitive, subtle and poignant examination of the fragile potential of human life. They are also a fitting testament to a life which was still so full of potential.

Louisa Buck

Helen Chadwick, artist: born Croydon 18 May 1953; died London 15 March 1996.

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