I met Helen Chadwick only once, in the summer of 1994, on an interview assignment for Modern Painters magazine. I am proud to say that the formal interview very quickly broke down and what took place instead was one of the most memorable conversations of my life. I am proud, and sad. For, looking at this small exhibition at the Portfolio Gallery in Edinburgh reminded me of that day and of what a great loss Chadwick's recent early death has been for British art.
Whether pissing in the snow with her partner in the name of art or creating her extraordinary, olfactory chocolate fountain for the Serpentine Gallery in London, Chadwick was nothing if not controversial. But her controversy was not based upon sensationalism. That she was an intelligent, reasoning artist with a strong art-historical grounding is borne out by the depth and importance of the works on view here. They are the last testimony to Chadwick's genius: a series of pieces on which she was working at the time of her death, and, inevitably, unfinished.
While their apparent central theme might relate to the current ethical debate on genetic engineering and embryo selection, their implicit concern is with our commonly held perceptions of aesthetics and Platonic notions of relative beauty.
Into large, wall-mounted "cameos" of a roughly hard-edged or op art style, Chadwick has incorporated cibachrome photographs of specimens from King's College Hospital. The result is grotesque in the extreme: a deformed cyclops and a chimpanzee fix us with the uncanny gaze of unseeing eyes.
Chadwick's vision is at once pathetic, poignant, accusatory and terrifying. Had it been completed, Chadwick's Cameo series would undoubtedly have presented one of the most powerful and relevant artworks of our time. In its current, inchoate state, we must be content with the ironic pathos the series has now accrued as a memorial to lost talent.
n Portfolio Gallery, 43 Candlemaker Row, Edinburgh (0131-220 1911). To 21 Sept
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies