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 Monchau

Tim Hilton
Saturday 21 June 1997 23:02

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.

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