Nick Hackworth

Helen Chadwick, Barbican

Essays & Reviews Evening Standard

It is in the part of this exhibition that resembles a particularly perverted corner of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory that the depth of Helen Chadwick’s influence on contemporary British art can be seen.

Chadwick, who was nominated for the Turner Prize in 1987 and died suddenly in 1996, with heart failure, at the age of 43, has long been regarded as the precursor of the punky Young British Artist tendency.

This, her first major retrospective, is an attempt to cement her reputation, which currently does not extend beyond these shores. It also inaugurates the newly refurbished Barbican Art Gallery, in the downstairs space, along with the accompanying photography exhibition (reviewed right) upstairs.

The already well-lit bottom floor has been competently enlarged and improved by the removal of a redundant staircase so that it forms one unified area.

At the heart of the Willy Wonka area is Cacao, a large fountain of warm, liquid chocolate, first shown at the Serpentine a decade ago (with Chadwick’s best known work, Piss Flowers). Hung around it is a photographic series, Wreaths to Pleasure. Like the related piece, Billy Bud, in which an unattractive ensemble of male genitalia nestles discreetly at the heart of vibrantly coloured flower, the Wreaths are about the closeness of beauty and corruption, featuring flowers and fruits, sometimes arranged in sexually suggestive shapes, floating on toxic substances.

Similarly Cacao, which happily exploits the scatological connotations of chocolate, articulates the relationship between defecation and consumption, inviting you to be simultaneously attracted and repulsed by the thick, brown, bubbling liquid.

The constellation of subjects that these works address — the body, gender identity, the sacred and the profane — were Chadwick’s staple and common to art, especially feminist art, since the Sixties.

However, as the Eighties flowed into the Nineties her work became increasingly slick, less laboured and pseudo-theoretical, so developing the characteristics that defined the work of the YBAs.

There are some howlers along the way, such as the magnificently naff and quintessentially Eighties photo Meat Abstract No 8, in which a lump of meat with a lit light bulb protruding from it, rests upon a bed of lush golden yellow and silvery blue fabrics, next to a golden egg.

Such mistakes were occupational hazards, though, for someone who, unlike other artists of her generation (Anish Kapoor or Antony Gormley), tried to make her work increasingly accessible.

So the retrospective proves that Chadwick does indeed deserve to be seen as a significant founder of the Young British Artist sensibility.

Whether one would want that accolade is another matter.

Opens tomorrow and runs until 1 August. Information: 0845 120 7550