New York

Luke Stettner, Three Identical Cubes, 2011, three-channel color video, 5 minutes 20 seconds.

Luke Stettner, Three Identical Cubes, 2011, three-channel color video, 5 minutes 20 seconds.

Luke Stettner

Kate Werble Gallery

Luke Stettner, Three Identical Cubes, 2011, three-channel color video, 5 minutes 20 seconds.

In Luke Stettner’s almost colorless New York solo debut, one work stood out: a squat column of bright plastic plates—seven small ones stacked atop nine large. It has the look of a toy, though it turns out to be anything but; Stettner has fashioned the cheery 1970s vintage dishes, sourced from his childhood home, into an urn for his father’s ashes. He ground the original funerary vessel, a traditional marble affair, into dust and displayed it here under water and oil in a straight glass vase that resembles a laboratory test tube. Both vessels sit on slender wooden—ash, get it?—pedestals, and together describe a neat set of material, ideational, and emotional switcheroos. The original vessel has been transformed into a simulacrum of its own contents, while its replacement invests mass-produced Pop-Minimalist form with a surprising emotional frisson.

This systematic but playful and sometimes poignant approach is common to all of the work in “Eyes That Are Like Two Suns”; the show had a visual and procedural clarity of a kind that is currently rather unfashionable but still highly satisfying when done right. On this occasion, Stettner focused specifically on chance and memory as “calculable phenomena,” subjecting a variety of sources to more or less drastic reframings and reorganizations aimed at identifying their uniqueness and universality. The theme was established with An Immutable Law That No One Can Count On, 2011, an array of seventy-two maple dice representing every combination of two numbers that it is possible to throw. The set represents a kind of totality but also underscores a limit: We can, as mathematicians and gamblers know, understand the operation of probability without coming any closer to transcending it.

Cubes crop up again in a lovely three-channel video, Three Identical Cubes, 2011, which shows an origami master folding three sheets of white paper into three perfect boxes. Each of three monitors follows the master as he takes a different route to what looks like the same result, in almost exactly the same amount of time (a little over five minutes). Filmed in close-up and accompanied only by the sounds of paper being scored and creased, the performance is entrancing, a mesmerizing portrait of sleight-of-hand dexterity. Three Identical Cubes is a study in doing a lot with a little, and hints at the significance of variation, even—or especially—when difference is an aspect of hidden intention as opposed to a readily discernible outcome. Getting there is, after all, half the fun.

More self-consciously serious, and arguably less successful for it, is Untitled (Absence Grows Sharper), 2011, a grid of eighteen small slabs of high-density foam coated in glossy white enamel. A hair-thin black line that runs vertically down the center of each piece turns out not to be a painted addition but a physical cut, adding an echo of Lucio Fontana’s “Spatial Concept” canvases, 1946–68, to the flavor of Piero Manzoni’s “Achromes,” 1967–62. Another set of almost-blank panels from 2011 consists of twelve framed sheets of handmade paper, each a mottled pale gray. The work’s extended parenthetical subtitle offers a list of dates and places, while details of its medium provide a final clue: What we are looking at is a Cartier-Bresson calendar, pulped and reconstituted into a year of mute abstractions. The discovery that Grey Area’s raw material held sentimental value for the artist, then, only muddles things. Stettner’s art is most successful when the absence it traces is both deeply felt and transparently embodied.

Michael Wilson