The Last Days of Immanuel Kant
With his whimsical constructions, Laurent Millet challenges our initial perceptions, applying analogue means to create stunning affects. Developing out of his series Les Zozios, exhibited at Robert Mann Gallery in 2005, the works in The Last Days of Immanuel Kant are ephemeral sculptural tableaux made only to be photographed. Millet has often explored the uncanny effect of translating objects to images, at times playing on the two dimensional surface of the photographic image and its capacity to render realistic spatial depths. His studio serves as both playground and workshop — a place of aesthetic and philosophical investigation.
The title of the exhibition is taken from Thomas de Quincey's novella of the same name, in which the narrator describes the declining health and diminished perceptual faculties of the eminent philosopher, rendering Kant less capable of interpreting the world around him. Millet takes Kant's waning powers as the inspiration for his own explorations of phenomenological doubt. For all of their pleasurable optical revelations, Millet's constructions are hardly the effects of a naïve dabbler, but rather make knowing and winking reference to a wide-range of Modernist art and scientific discoveries. From Tatlin's Constructivist reliefs to molecular models: against this matrix of signs, Millet's work evinces a critical doubt and wonder at our ability to understand and perceive the world around us in any objective fashion.
Millet's images revel in the deceptions and revelations of sculptural form. But rather than emphasizing the material weight of his constructions, the dominant effect is of light and color intervening in the specific spaces of their construction. The sheer white walls, floor, and furniture of the archetypal studio create a sort of depthless blank slate for explosions of color (or alternatively a nearly desaturated achromaticity). Recalling Dan Flavin's fluorescent light tube installations or Calder's wire constructions, Millet's ephemeral forms interrogate the particulars of the space they occupy. Other works in the exhibition continue this interest in spatial illusionism and rendering of architectural space. In Les Vacances de Dusseldorf, a suite of nine hand-painted photographs, it appears that the artist has created simple drawings of buildings on top of the photographic surface; in fact the linear framework of the sketch is rendered using yarn in three dimensions within his studio. Only as an (over-painted) photograph does it achieve it's intended trompe-l'oeil effect.
The Last Days of Immanuel Kant is Laurent Millet's fourth solo exhibition at Robert Mann Gallery. In 2009 he presented a solo exhibition at the Rencontres d'Arles, and has been in recent shows at the Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago and the Museé Malraux, Le Havre. Millet's work is included in the collections of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. Born in 1968, he lives in Rochefort, France.
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 Judgement, 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 color and translucency, and by siting abstraction in apparently real space. The artist's decision to include unvarnished details of his sculptures' studio setting encourages us to see them as products of ongoing creative process, contributing to a sense of thought made flesh 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 trailing electrical cords, evokes a pimped-out reworking of Eva Hesse's Hang Up, 1965-66. And where there's a hint of flourescent 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 intracacies 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, fives a 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 "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.
The New Yorker
June 8, 2010
Like Thomas Demand and James Casebere, Millet makes temporary constructions in his studio and then photographs them. But in Millet's case, the sculptures are whimsical, obviously ephemeral, and seem to exist only for pleasure — both his and ours. The white-walled studio setting grounds the work but never stifles its antic wit. A seemingly endless ribbon of brightly colored plastic tape snakes around a white painted stool. In another picture, a skyscraper-like stack of clear plastic boxes on that same stool nearly disappears in the sun but is visible as a shadow on the wall. The work's Calderesque sense of play is matched by its innate sophistication. Through July 9.
The Village Voice
March 26, 2010
Best In Show – Recommendations by Robert Shuster
French artist Laurent Millet states that the inspiration for his charmingly odd sculptures was Thomas De Quincey's 1827 pseudo-memoir about Immanuel Kant's last days, an essay based on the actual memories of the philosopher's assistant — a series of connections that may strike you as a circuitous joke. But then, consider that (1) Millet's fanciful constructions could suggest Kant's end-of-life delusions, and that (2) De Quincey's double-remove from his subject parallels the fact that Millet presents only photographs of sculptures in this show. If you still sense a bit of malarkey, it's because you're dealing with an intellectual clown, a bel esprit who likes to toy with your perception.
Many of the photographed works here, assembled from the simplest of material, riff on Escher's visual tricks. In Calmez Vous Mr. Kant, squiggly lines connecting colored squares seem to be drawn on the wall, but they're actually wires tied to cubes. Elsewhere, the exquisite shading of an all-white work refines a similar illusion: A spiky paper polyhedron, resting on a table while tethered by string to the ceiling, appears to exist either in a dreamy 3-D world or in a flattened one you'd swear was painted.
Unconnected to Kant, the delightful Les Vacances de Dusseldorf playfully pays homage to Bernd and Hilla Becher's images of German industrial architecture. Painting directly on photographs taken of wire that's been cleverly arranged on a wall, Millet has made it seem as if childlike drawings of homes are floating like balloons. The show will leave you feeling happily buoyant, too.