The Critics: Public View

ADVENTURES IN CONTEMPORARY ART NO 10: VAGINA DENTATA
Click to follow
There is a challenging atmosphere to the gallery at the Tate filled with works by Cathy de Monchaux. The organic shapes on geometric grids are attractive from a distance, but up close they suggest a grotesque - if sumptuous - sexuality.

Don't touch my waist, Balming rusty wounds and Assuaging doubts through others' eyes are typical titles of the wall-mounted pieces. Typical too are crossed, pointed brass blades overlaid with pink leather folded into shapes that look like mussels and oysters, ligamenture and viscera, and - most decidedly - female genitalia.

More titles: Love does not apply itself to the sound principles of reason, Cogent shuddering and Strange animal. This last work consists of simple six- inch figures made of pale leather, bound by thread at their throat and limbs to a long brass grid fence. The first eight figures have two red dots for eyes. The next eight have two red dots on their chests. The next eight have a ragged red neckline and no head ... Further groups have huge red-bordered ears, reproductive organs marked in red, a leg or an arm severed, and so on. Not a pretty sight, and a strange animal indeed is responsible for this carnage. I shudder - cogently or otherwise. And I apologise to the woman I've bumped into while sharply turning away from the work.

The floor of the room is dominated by Never forget the flower of tears. Twelve human-sized slabs of smooth, matt lead create a morbid setting for the central element - a long feature that is divided into sections in line with the lead, and resembles an exposed spine or a zip. From what appears to be two rows of lipped openings emerge serpent-like heads each of which is tied back to a brass fixture by a leather lace. I put my hand between two rampant, engorged elements, Then I remember the "strange animal", and how some of its victims arms had been severed (the bloodied stump still tied to the brass fence). Venus mantrap! And this is another. I walk around it ... In this case the unsuspecting male lies down on a harmless looking slab of lead - not exactly comfortable but, you know, an innocent resting place. Instantly - THUNK! - the trap is sprung. Too late he remembers the power of crocodile tears.

I move on. The floor-bound spine lines up with the central part of the biggest wall-mounted piece., Fretting around on the brink of indolence. On either side are light-boxes showing a field of green grain. There are hedgerow plants in the foreground and mature trees in the distance, but the ripening crop is the main subject of the divided photograph: Mother Earth, perhaps. So what about this central panel? How does it contextualise the rest? The outer parts resemble a spider's web, but in the middle is an oval of extravagantly pleated pink suede. I've never seen anything so lusciously labial in my life. The suede is covered in chalk dust which further softens and sensualises the surface. The pleats are restrained by what look like eyeless pheasants' heads with long necks that emerge from the centre of things, each neck kept tight to the folds of suede by brass loops. Everything serves to focus attention on the central, vertically- inclined oval - darker pink and firmer folds of leather covered in yet more chalk - that I can surely smell if I lean in close ...

Not too close, I warn myself, and take a step back. I peer into the shadows of the centrepiece. I'm thinking of Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast trilogy now, or at least the volumes that are set in the castle. Is this Lady Gertrude? Is this the opening out of which emerged the unusually large- headed Titus Groan, destined to be the 77th Lord of Gormenghast? "Suckled on shadows; weaned, as it were, on webs of ritual: for his ears, echoes, for his eyes a labyrinth of stone: and yet within his body something other - other than this umbrageous legacy. For first and ever foremost he is child ..."

"Don't touch," says a voice, startling me. I turn and stare at the woman. "Be careful not to brush against it," she tells me in a voice at once both authoritative and dripping with maternal solicitude. Then her purple- lipped mouth breaks into a gleaming white-toothed smile. I scuttle off. And I don't stop until I'm in a room in the west wing which is hung wall- to-wall with tried and trusted old Constables.

Then I creep back ...

Cathy de Monchaux, Turner Prize 1998, Tate Gallery, SWl (0171 887 8008), to 10 January.

'Personal Delivery', Duncan McLaren's book about contemporary art, is out now from Quartet (pounds 12).

Comments