Helen Chadwick: Mutability and Multiplicity

Stefan513593-A3-sketchbook - visual mapping

Helen Chadwick (1953 – 1996) is a fascinating artist and the more I dig deeper into her work the more I could relevance. After my first exploration of her work (Schaffeld, 2018) I wanted to understand more of her approach. Many of her works can be seen on ArtNet.

The advantage is that many of her works and her way of working are captured in her archived notebooks at the Henry Moore foundation (The Henry Moore Foundation, 2019) – though I find it difficult to read the flipbook online format. What makes it more intriguing to explore her thinking and making process. In her quite short life ended by a sudden heart failure (apparently due to viral infection – Wikipedia) her body of work is as diverse as it possibly could be.

Her early undergraduate and graduate works from the 1970s were informed by context of institutional critique and power relations expressed through architectural structures of the environment, e.g Menstrual Toilet, 1975-76, Train of Thought, 1978-79, or Model Institution, 1981-84 (Walker, 2013). But her sensibility to gender representations and the female self became already articulated in that early work. Afterwards, her body of work is often seen as complex and possibly ‚out of her time‘, making it more energetic nowadays (Chadwick and Walker, 2013:x). Or as Walker stated (2015) that the ‚epistemological underpinnings of her thinking become increasingly complex and dynamic‘. Maybe it resonates as at times I feel that my thinking could be quite complex as well?

It resonates when Walker describes her life and work as

‚chasing one of her enduring preoccupations – the construction and maintenance or personal identity – Chadwick‘s work can offer insights into a number of major, enduring questions: the relationship between body, space, self and world; between art and science; between artifice and nature; between theory and practice, creative self and creative process.‘ (Walker, 2013:x-xi).

Listening to the audio book version on her exhibition ‚Of Mutability‘ (James, 2017) allowed me to envision her work beyond reading, intrigued by her projects from mid-late 1980s, embracing light as performing media in installations, e.g. Blood Hyphen, 1988 and installations appropriating rococo aesthetics, eg. The Oval Court, 1984-86.

Her work could be considered as postmodernist art, it appropriates, collages and interprets art historical concepts of aesthetics. Also as she was ‚actively seeking the points of collapse in those structures that constrained identity and experience’ (Walker, 2013:2). But it is also more than a mere conceptual reflection. Her works are very much a bodily reflection on forms and thoughts. At times, rather literally as in The Oval Court where she used a photocopier to make fragmented images of her own body, a presence of the artist collaged into new works and surface illusion. Interesting aspect, that work as a picture was installed as a flat table (reminding me of the flatbed approach in part two of this course). Finger tips turned into golden spheres, raising the flatness upwards to sculptural perception. She plays with space and surface, with illusion and newly created narratives. She places the viewer into a situation of uncertainty and considers the image as the mirror image of the viewer (Chadwick, 2011).

‘we are determined by what is around us rather than being autonomous’ – Helen Chadwick (2011)

Some examples of her work (Chadwick, 2011 and James, 2017):

  • Ego Geometria Sum (1983-84):  sculptures representing her body at a certain age, inspired by Bachelard’s The Poetic of Space, form and image as a representation of self
  • ‘Of Mutability’ – The Oval Court (1986): aspects of decay ad renewal, photocopies, ‘the tactile as an absolute’, gold associated with the eternal, a Rococo richness  –  inspired by Bavarian churches, pleasure, decorative, dynamic, moving, multiple viewpoints, not one power principle, flat surface, a reflection, a kind of self-portraiture
  • Into the Light (1986-88): image as light projection, light touching the surface, giving it a different value, moving away from the physical surface into the light. This reminds me remind of Katharina Grosse’s approach in overcoming architectural constraints through thin layers of paint. Thin layers versus thick opaque paint, color and illumination versus physical tactile materiality, perception versus touch? 
  • Blood Hyphen (1988): laser beam, space (vault of a chapel) experienced as body chamber
  • Viral Landscapes (1988-89) – image of simultaneous penetration, fragments of inner self, made with computer technologies to control fusion, chromaline proofs

I can detect a movement in Chadwick’s work away from the physical and sculptural towards a more penetrated, introjected view into and beyond the things, the images. Using macro and microscopic technologies to look beyond an apparent Invisibility. A major concern in her work is form related to image. A key question relates to boundaries, of forms, of the body. Chadwick was seeking a deeper understanding and overcoming of ‘Canon of the Western Tradition’ (Walker, 2015:92). Her interest in  ‘Composite Images’ were less of a manipulation of images and rather an approach to look into ‘an image’s modality’ (Walker, 2013:202). Reduction as an opportunity ‘for a fuller perception and understanding’ (Walker, 2015:92). And last, not least, the process of viewing and its limitations in gaining understanding. A remark she made in her notebook (1984-92) (Henry Moore Foundation, HMI 2003.19/E/7 ): 

‘Self as event not matter [..] Dissolution of boundaries of self’ – Helen Chadwick 


Take away learnings:

My take aways from Chadwick’s work are her bodily interrogation of how we perceive and interact with the world around us, how we come to an understanding of seeing, and how materiality, forms, and surfaces can be seen as a reflection on the self, the identity. And similar to Jutta Koether,  art history informed Chadwick’s work – from a conceptual and an aesthetic point but also from an epistemological point. 

Another point relates to her practice of using notebooks as a visual mean to explore ideas and thoughts and to use them for future project realization. I realised through a deeper exploration of her body of work how forward moving research through practice can be and how works could evolve as solidification of fluid ideas.

In sum

  • Research as practice
  • (Visual) thinking through notebooks
  • Body as performing tool for visualization
  • ‘The mirror-image of the viewer’


  • Featured image: some of my sketchbook pages visual mapping, part of assignment 3 development, 2019


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Documentary: Olafur Eliasson ‘Space is Process’ (DVD)

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