New York

Laurent Millet

Robert Mann Gallery

The title of Laurent Millet’s fourth solo exhibition at this gallery, “The Last Days of Immanuel Kant,” may have led some viewers to anticipate a po-faced Conceptual deconstruction of the Critique of Judgment, but the French artist’s photographs are surprisingly light and playful affairs, requiring little if any knowledge of eighteenth-century epistemology. In fact, the show’s moniker is borrowed from a novella by Thomas De Quincey that traces the tail end of the eminent philosopher’s life through the gradual waning of his once-acute senses. Millet’s shots of his own sculptural tableaux mirror the premise of the book insofar as, by exploiting quirks of light, focus, and perspective, they cast doubt on the reliability of perception.

That said, Millet’s images are never fully illusionistic but rather hint at the gaps in our understanding of the visual world through the judicious use of color and translucency, and by siting abstraction in apparently real space. The artist’s decision to include unvarnished details of his sculptures’ studio settings encourages us to see them as products of an ongoing creative process, contributing to a sense of thought made flesh that would surely have pleased Königsberg’s most famous son. Some even seem to have a scientific bent: In Calmez-vous Mr. Kant and Doucement Mr. Kant, both 2009, primary-colored blocks and balls are shown threaded onto wires in configurations that suggest atomic models in progress.

In other works, such associations are joined by echoes of other artists’ work. Ne vous fatiguez pas Mr. Kant, 2009, for example, depicts a row of tubes, pieced together from multicolored gels, leaning against a white wall and illuminated by a spotlight that is also included in the shot. The form of the sculpture and the softened matrix of chromatic light it casts are both immediately reminiscent of the attempts Spencer Finch has made to approximate the conditions of particular times and places—real and imagined—by tinting fluorescent bulbs. In Pas si vite Mr. Kant, 2009, the tubes crop up again in the form of a framelike square that, draped as it is in trailing electrical cords, evokes a pimped-out reworking of Eva Hesse’s Hang Up, 1965–66. And where there’s a hint of fluorescent light, there’s a hint too of Dan Flavin.

It is hard to deliberately engineer shadows without veering into special-effects showiness or campy atmospherics—but in Allons Mr. Kant and Une Illusion Mr. Kant, both 2009, Millet just about manages not to over-egg the pudding. In the former, two clear boxes, attached to each other and the wall by a single thread, are rendered visible primarily through the gentle shade they produce. In the latter, a stack of transparent cubes is piled on a stool while planing light from a nearby window reveals intricacies of edge and surface. The shadow cast seems to transform the arrangement from three dimensions to a sketched-out two and, in a twist of perspectival confusion, gives the impression that the stack is more than just precarious but actually impossible.

Also offering unexpectedly engaging variations on the overfamiliar are two sets of photographs depicting generic houses. In the nine-part trompe l’oeil Les Vacances de Dusseldorf, 2006, the abodes are delineated via lengths of yarn pulled taut across studio corners, the scratchy black-and-white prints then partly colored with flat fields of opaque acrylic. And in six entries from the series “Grand Village,” 2006, a set of tabletop models is shot in hazy focus, the process lending the forms a dreamlike ambiguity and, for once, glossing over the details of their construction. Sharing the use of a recognizable archetype to initiate simple experiments in representation, these groups made effective bookends to a quietly invigorating show.

Michael Wilson