n the first few hours of daylight strolling down familiar streets feels like walking on the moon. Everything you see - the dew, the humming milk vans, the clouds of chirruping birds - belongs to another world and possesses a strange beauty unfamiliar to people still slumbering in their beds. As the sleeping millions awake, this magic can get lost in the rumble of the rush hour. Sometimes, however, a whole day is as special as its dawn.
'Early One Morning' is a good title for an exhibition bent on bringing a handful of emerging British sculptors to wider public attention. It suggests moist lawns and lemony sunlight, a new perspective on physical things. It's also the name of a seminal work by Anthony Caro that featured in Tate Britain's 'Tra-La-La', a brief survey of 1960s New Generation sculpture timed to coincide with the Whitechapel Art Gallery's show. Wearing its curatorial strategy on its sleeve, 'Early One Morning' was an attempt to define a new tendency in contemporary art by invoking an episode from the history of Modernism. It's a pretty shaky methodology (if you're in a bad mood, it seems almost Vasarian in its simplicity), but the show was so joyful, so confident and so full of visual pleasure that picking apart its premise seems as daft as damning a sunrise because a single cloud is skidding across the sky.
Most of the ground floor was carpeted with tessellated rubber triangles, designed by Gary Webb. Scored with diagonal lines and bearing the artist's signature, these mats provided a firm footing for anyone approaching his slippery sculptures. Crowned with a cartoonish yellow crest, the shoddy wooden chicken coop of Cock and Bull (2001) resembled the work of a DIY enthusiast with a very literal mind. But this was a bird house with a difference. Home to a porcelain dish that could once have been a seed bowl or an empty ashtray, it was attached to a luxurious passage of black plastic and perched on a Perspex plinth that shat square coins like some alien fruit machine. Webb's sculpture dangled a number of different hermeneutic carrots - functional, narrative, purely formal - but was too contrary to make a single reading viable. Cheerfully useless, it had something in common with Tim Scott's Peach Wheels (1962), although its most obvious ancestor was Tra-La-La (1963), by Philip King. A powdery blue cone topped with what looked like a length of twisted marshmallow, King's sculpture was both a sly New Generation remix of Constantin Brancusi's Bird in Space (1940) and a hymn to the joys of putting disparate things together to see if they'll somehow fit.
At the far end of the ground floor stood Claire Barclay's Collars for Woodseers (2002), a timber frame dotted with silvery spikes and hung with a gong and a slumping marionette. A cluster of heavy black crystals occupied one corner of the work. Resembling executioners enjoying a fag break or a huddled murder of crows, they transformed Barclay's sculpture into an elaborate gibbet. Here and there small holes in the woodwork were stuffed with scraps torn from white plastic bags - mourners' tributes or fluffy bacteria blooming from browning bloodstains. Like the leathery spider plants and severed heads of Eva Rothschild's Hothouse (2002), they felt both reassuringly folksy and full of unspecific menace. Rothschild's woven posters and bristling balls of joss sticks were perhaps the most familiar things in 'Early One Morning', but the show opened her art up to new interpretations. Seen alongside Webb's wonderfully wonky works, her spiky monolith Within You, Without You II (2002) seemed less like a meditation on New Age mysticism than an autonomous sculptural object trying to shrug off its poetic associations.
Shahin Afrassiabi's compositions of paint tins, lino and other home improvement staples suffered in this company. His work referenced the New Generation (not to mention Gordon Matta-Clark), but he had obviously not read Jasper Johns' dictum 'Take something, do something to it, then do something else to it'. Afrassiabi's stuff looked good, but it lacked that extra something. Jim Lambie's disco Modernism was a different matter. Placing Lambie next to Rothschild made an odd kind of sense, like a love affair between a Goth girl and a dance hall king who share the same secret spiritual yearnings.
Whether these five artists represent a coherent tendency is a moot point. Their work has a few cosmetic similarities, sure, but it also has more than its share of differences. The strongest link between the works is an eagerness to square up to the past and explore what sculpture might mean today. These artists are not the heirs of Caro's New Generation. No one is; art just doesn't work like that anymore. In 'Early One Morning', however, they look fresh as a brand new day.