Exhibitions: Love divined and kama sutured

The Whitechapel Gallery has coupled the Hindu god of love with a surrealist sculptor of the female anatomy. But Krishna the Divine Lover looks happier in the union than Cathy de Monchaux

The Whitechapel Gallery is a good place for paired exhibitions because its higher and lower floors have different characters and don't interact very well if they are filled by a single artist. Now at the Whitechapel is a quite happy and also rather sexy partnership. Downstairs is a display of Cathy de Monchaux's recent sculpture. Upstairs is "Krishna the Divine Lover", in which we trace the worship of the legendary Hindu god through some 120 miniatures, most of them classical but some by contemporary Indian artists.

These shows have come about in different ways. The carefully planned "Krishna" is a special gesture to mark the fiftieth anniversary of Indian and Pakistani independence, and it's one of the National Touring Exhibitions organised by the Hayward Gallery.

These exhibitions deserve more attention, for they are often rather good and at any time there are about 20 of them around the country (and another country could be involved: the South Bank is prepared to send exhibitions to Ireland, though Irish galleries have not yet twigged that this is so). Anyway, "Krishna" will tour to Huddersfield, then Sheffield, and will finish in Brighton next January.

This exhibition of miniatures was carefully devised with lots of help from experts. Cathy de Monchaux was talent-spotted, then invited to use the Whitechapel in any way she pleased. Here's a radically different way of making an exhibition, and the Gallery's enterprise is to be applauded. De Monchaux was first noticed when she contributed a piece called Hide to the Whitechapel Open in 1988. It was a sculpture of no great size, made from lead, velvet and bolts, but it stuck in the mind because the imagery was sexual, perhaps fetishistic, indebted to Surrealism but feminine in a way that old Surrealism never was. In the next few years de Monchaux's work was often seen in mixed shows and was always distinctive, though in the same ways. Her manner of combining, for instance, plushy velours with steel grips was cleverly varied, but the sculptures were still variations on a single them. Clearly she needed a new start, and this is where the Whitechapel came in.

When de Monchaux was offered the lower gallery three years ago she had to think of ways of filling it. Here were difficulties. A retrospective was out of the question because her art hadn't changed enough. She had a big space to play with, but her sculptures are at their best if their size is rather compressed. Furthermore, the gallery has a large floor area, yet her pieces are more effective if hung on walls. Only two solutions were possible. Either de Monchaux had to totally remake herself as a sculptor or she had to build interior rooms within the gallery. She has taken the latter course, and the results are interesting rather than compelling.

Her work is three-dimensional - on the whole - but de Monchaux still cannot make sculpture that owes its presence to volume and mass, that stands on a floor or a plinth and is seen in the round. Her instincts are for decoration rather than construction. The scale of the new work is mistaken because the detail is so much more interesting than the whole. We read her work in bits, looking at the little clamps, prongs, thongs, sections of rubber or copper with an attention that is never commanded by the whole piece. This is a fault of the flat hangings she has devised to cover the gallery's high walls. At the back of the room is Wandering about in the future, looking forward to the past and opposite the entrance is Rocking the boat before the storm ahead (all de Monchaux's titles are like this, and the labels are in her own handwriting). Little bits are often terrific. Stand back, and the whole work is disappointing, also derivative.

These hangings remind me of free-form installations that were done in New York in the early 1970s. De Monchaux is a little like the late Eva Hesse, an American artist whose high reputation has now disappeared. The room de Monchaux has constructed in the centre of the gallery, artistically a failure, is influenced by sculptors of Hesse's period, principally Carl Andre and Robert Morris. I fear that de Monchaux is original in small things, but a follower of previous art when it comes to big things. Her formidable imagination and craftsmanship might have been helped forward by an invitation from a gallery of more modest proportions.

Upstairs, a different experience. Small in size, vivid and concentrated as they are, Indian miniatures always give delight to the eye - and maybe to the eye alone. For we Europeans still find Indian art difficult to understand. Its sculpture and architecture makes more sense to me than the painting. When you look at miniatures it's like surveying a whole civilisation through the wrong end of a telescope. For these reasons I recommend "Krishna the Divine Lover". It has a clear and wonderful theme. The exhibits are of a high class, for they are taken from the choice collections of the V&A, the British Museum and the British Library. Above all, perhaps, Balraj Khanna's little catalogue-cum-book is a perfect guide to the Krishna legend and its illustration. It deserves a wide sale, especially among the school parties who will certainly visit this exhibition.

Children will be interested in Krishna's erotic adventures and ought to be able to sense his divinity. The pictures are so obviously sincere. Indian religious art never hit the depths of banality we find in 19th- century European Christian painting. One thing saddens me. The contemporary artists are no good. A great continent is joining the modern global world, with which its visual culture cannot cope.

! Whitechapel, E1 (0171 522 7878), to 27 Jul.

Arts and Entertainment
Shades of glory: Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend

Glastonbury Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend will perform with Paul Weller as their warm-up act

Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Arts and Entertainment

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
    Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

    Flesh in Venice

    Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
    Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

    Juventus vs Real Madrid

    Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
    Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

    Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

    Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power