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Seductive mind over matter

John O'Reilly meets Cathy de Monchaux
There is one very practical reason behind the fact that Cathy de Monchaux's exhibition at the Whitechapel is so, well, strange. It is her first show in this country for a number of years and while other artists have swum in the turbulent fashions and trends of contemporary British art, de Monchaux has waltzed and danced to her own prodigal rhythms. In the late Eighties, her objects gained attention for their luscious juxtapositions of materials such as red velvet and steel, and for the ambivalent kind of psychological states they engendered in the viewer - a mixture of seduction and repulsion. Her work tends to generate commentary and prose that is rich and perhaps a little unctious. Comparing the current show with the earlier work, she says "maybe it's more subtle than it used to be. Previously when you got close up to the object it would grab you. Now it's a much more benign seduction."

There is something deeply bewitching about the current work. Objects like Cruising Disaster - a repeated pattern in rusted steel, pink leather and chalk - draw you in with decorative, illustrative appeal before casting a spell. They get inside your head and generate multiple associations and contrary feelings. All these objects look like something. Cruising Disaster and Evidently Not resemble genitalia or at the very least something fleshy. It is Gigeresque in the manner of the Alien films. And the small scale, exquisitely detailed series Trust Your Sanity to No-one, constructed out of brass, leather, copper, chalk, glass and diamante appears vaguely organic in the way that Gaudi's ornamentations occasionally resemble living things.

"It's not really necessary to leave the show with a clear picture in your mind," says de Monchaux, "but when you leave there is some kind of connection. Maybe it's more like when you are walking down the street and something catches your eye and you try to make sense of it. That's the way I want the objects to work in the context of the gallery situation. Perhaps when you go away, whether you love the objects or hate them, there is some kind of lingering trace. Something like an infiltration."

The object that is most emblematic of the way her work gets inside your head is Never Forget the Power of Tears. It is a kind of sepulchre, with tombs made of lead tied down with metal clasps, separated by ornate rows of brass, copper and diamante. It is both striking and demur in a similar way to religious artefacts. The craft, attention to detail and luxurious material echo the artwork for the people as provided by the church. And then there is a glass confessional constructed out of white-painted glass and copper. So how do these religious reference points reflect on the nature of her work as a whole?

"I suppose it's like a cultural plundering of all those manipulations of the spirit that religious iconography is used for. I am just using it in my work where it feels appropriate to make you feel that. It's not coincidental." And when I ask de Monchaux whether this emphasis on the psychological effects of the work detracts from an appreciation of the objects themselves, she corrects me, like a church elder evaluating the nature of the religious icon: "The mental state is the important thing. The objects themselves are just a vehicle to get you there."

Rather than getting trapped in the opulent signature of her own unique style, this show is a clear development of her sculptural language. The Whitechapel Gallery lends itself perfectly to de Monchaux's purpose of creating a self-contained world of objects.

"For me it's important that the work has always been moving. The earlier work has an innocence in comparison to the current work because this is much more worked on. You learn new things and your thinking becomes more complicated and sophisticated. You might look back at earlier work and think 'that's nice' or 'more simple'." Laughingly she suggests that "as you get older, you get to be more of a tragic git or something. It's to do with disappointment." But strangely as it has become more complex it has also become more primitive.

There is something excessive about her work. It has a curious antecedent in the sexualised Art Nouveau where the ornate is invested with libido. Adolf Loos, champion of the functional as a reaction against degenerate ornamentation, even railed against people wearing tattoos, believing that if they were not already in prison it was only because they hadn't committed a crime yet. De Monchaux's work is a tattoo, opulently imprinted all over the Whitechapel, and by this reckoning should be locked up immediately.