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Cathy de Monchaux”

At the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden to Oct. 22

Contemporary artist Kiki Smith has said that she divides the world into two categories: sexy and not sexy. The work of Cathy de Monchaux falls cleanly into the former. Which is not to say that it’s arousing or even pleasant, though it is thrilling. Some visual-art sexiness arises as a warm, blooming giddiness in the belly, such as that of Pipilotti Rist’s Ever Is Over All, seen last fall in the Hirshhorn’s “Regarding Beauty” show. But the anxious eroticism of the dozen de Monchaux pieces installed in the Hirshhorn’s Directions gallery instead exerts a chilly grip on the chest.

De Monchaux wasn’t included in last year’s notorious “Sensation” exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, though her absence probably says more about the interests of collector Charles Saatchi than about any thematic focus to which his show might have pretended. But she should have been there. Born in London in 1960, de Monchaux fits the Young British Artist profile, and sensation is her sculpture’s hook. Her palette of materials, which includes leather, fur, brass, copper, steel, lead, glass, wood, velvet, rope, wire, thread, and chalk, is engineered into elaborate constructions that simultaneously attract and repel tactile response. Her neo-Gothic pastiche draws from cinema, nature, art, and architecture to create a steady, sustained intimation of sex and horror.

De Monchaux holds true to the deliberate confusion of sources that has characterized Gothic style ever since its mid-18th-century renaissance. She melds the conceptual repetitions of postminimalist sculpture with the decorative and functional patterning of Gothic Revival architecture, and also avails herself of the link between monster-movie restraints and S&M habiliment. Although her objects recall props from horror and science fiction films, they have been constructed to withstand real-world scrutiny; their seductive veneer never cracks. She makes hand-sized insectoid jewels that look like designs for the mouse of Captain Nemo’s iMac (1996’s Trust your sanity to no one) and revivifies vaginal imagery in a voluptuous B&D cross between Judy Chicago and Rebecca Horn (1999’s Red). And some mornings I didn’t want to get up at all (1996) can be read as an homage to Robert Mapplethorpe’s most infamous self-portrait; it unites bullwhip and anus into a suspended reptilian tail of leather that puckers at its base, ripples along its length, and coils onto the floor. On the low platform of the room’s centerpiece, Caught in chaos (courting chaos) (2000), scissorlike claws and metal talons hold open a giant, fur-flecked gash, which doubles as a giant worm pinned for dissection. In a corner hangs 1999’s Dunce (mind tenant), which looks like an H.R. Giger-designed alien inspired by a jellyfish and a cat-o’-nine-tails.

In a summer that has granted such accommodation to mosquitoes that my legs look like a detail from the Isenheim altarpiece, I’ve given a certain amount of unfocused thought, much of it generated while absent-mindedly fingering scabs, to the temptations of multiply scarred flesh. Why were five wounds not enough for the body of Grünewald’s Christ? Why extend the mortifications inflicted by the crown of thorns to the whole skin?

The answers lie in the reverence inspired by specificity. Lingering over Christ’s individual wounds creates contemplative space for mulling your sins. As any lapsed supplicant knows, the end of prayer comes when you stop spelling everything out; first, you gather your petitions into vague lumps of need; later, you dispense with petitioning altogether. (The Catholic church’s insistence on regular, detailed confession is an attempt to halt the progression.) The Isenheim wounds write a penitent’s mnemonic into the body of Christ. An abstracted, sexualized variant of the medieval believer’s fixation on Jesus Christ Suppurstar finds leather enthusiasts running their fingers, or merely their eyes, across the disfiguring rivets of a biker jacket.

The wrinkles, folds, and spikes of de Monchaux’s detailing function similarly to the flurry of lesions of Grünewald’s Christ and the ostentatious hobnailing of Rob Halford’s heavy-metal gear. Her flamboyant overengineering, which owes much to both Victorian industrial design and Richard Deacon, activates the eye and keeps her work from too easily suggesting explicit narrative. In narrative forms, sex and horror depend on nearly musical timing, on the suspenseful unfurling of melodic line and explosions of rhythmic accent. De Monchaux, by contrast, is all tension and no release. Rather than shock the viewer, she prolongs discovery into a heightened zone of almost prayerful examination, though the thoughts that thrive there owe more to the aestheticized decadence of the current and previous fin de siècle than to the religiosity of the late Middle Ages.

Reviewing shows at the Sean Kelly Gallery and Mitchell-Innes & Nash last fall, New York Times art critic Roberta Smith objected to the “all-too-obvious intended effect” of de Monchaux’s art, claiming that it “seems to be impressively difficult to put together, but it is far too easy to take apart.” Smith assumes that the sexualized Gothic should aspire to mystery. But at the end of the century of Freud and Hitler, what is it about sex and horror that we don’t know?

De Monchaux’s intricate schemes don’t really hide anything; rather, they announce that we are subject to fundamental, irrational drives that are routinely denied in the name of propriety. Her sculptures bask in the harsh light of the white-cube gallery, when she could have milked them for haunted-house melodrama by tucking them into dark nooks. Her work isn’t, in fact, all that dark. Chalk, a substance that in the classroom connotes elucidation, highlights many of her surfaces.

The interpretation of the Gothic as a genre of revelation is no revisionist take. The same notion is responsible for the ongoing popularity of the Gothic among the young. It isn’t just that adolescents are naturally pretentious, solipsistic, and gloomy that keeps Bauhaus records in print and Anne Rice in toast points. The reason teens are perennially interested in everything from Holocaust memoirs to black garb to Joy Division is that they are awakening to a sense of adult depravity. To them, and to de Monchaux, the Gothic involves an act of unveiling, of owning up to the things we know are below the surface. CP