How Do These Things Touch Each Other?: Nick Mauss
by Dominic Eichler
When we try to visualize an idea, its borders inevitably seem hazy. Translated into form, this could suggest images composed of light traces, undulating lines, blurred brushstrokes. In the works on paper by Nick Mauss, every mark is a citation. This New York artist, born in 1980, invites us to visualize the world of his imagination, made up of stylized memories.
DOMINIC EICHLER: As far as I know, even though you produce drawings, paintings and sculptures, they don’t come from a classic studio practice but rather as a response to an occasion. Do you have the same sense of an occasion or trepidation before coming to do an interview as you have when you come to make a mark on a blank picture plane?
NICK MAUSS: I don’t think I have really put together a vocabulary to talk about my work yet, and it’s something I avoid to a certain degree, because the way in which I work and relate to what I’m doing has a built-in illegibility and a certain distancing. What’s more important to me is that the work presents itself as a kind of developing vocabulary. My process involves accumulation, sometimes in ways I’m not consciously aware of, and then sorting things out. That’s one of the reasons I’m attracted to drawing, because it’s a kind of a secondary medium. Drawings can be casual, humble and simultaneously vague and very direct. A drawing rarely seems to be finished; it is a notation of an idea before it is set in place. I leave a lot of time between bringing the different elements of a work together. Weeks after beginning a drawing, I might return to it and not recognize it anymore, or know how to relate to what is already there, so then I work with it as with a found object. Eventually as the marks cohere on the page, I like the sense that they seem to have been applied from the front and from behind.
DE: Why are you talking in terms of drawing?
NM: Drawing is the underlying process for what I do, and in its variety, allows me to work in forms that fall between categories. The three-dimensional work is about doing something with the same sensitivity as in the drawings, but on the scale of the body. These works with aluminum leaf on board have more to do with a kind of rudimentary printmaking or early photographic techniques than with ideas about painting: they’re amplified drawings. They’re so reflective, and change depending on the light, meaning you can’t really see them, or have to strike weird poses to see them entirely.
DE: Some of your works look like they might have been produced by an obscure postwar artist mulling over abstraction in relation to figuration, as well as a kind of fragmented realism in relation to dreams or subconscious images. I don’t mean this in a bad way. I mean that to me, there is a part of your work that embraces the idea of dated-ness, or being born with a history if you will.
NM: People often say that my work doesn’t look ‘contemporary’, but for me it is very much in the present. I don’t want the work to look like it’s from another time and I’m not a good imitator. I always get it wrong, I tend to fuse things. Maybe it’s more like a memory in the way that a memory always ends up getting stylized. Sometimes a memory might become an ornament on other memories, and they might not all have the same signature. I am really voracious when it comes to looking and reading. I love so many things. A professor at art school once demanded a statement about the main theme in my work and I said it was influence. In a way that’s probably still true.
DE: Many of your techniques and marks involve fragmentation or some kind of surface damage. There is also a complete absence of gestural bravado… quite the opposite, your marks can seem mulled-over, measured, fussy even.
NM: I want the work to show how it is constructed, to transmit the span of time in which it was made, and indicate various events, decisions, mistakes. And I’ve always been interested in a sense of unfamiliarity in artworks, where you see the artist trying to develop something without fully knowing yet what it is—then as a viewer, you also have to learn how to see the work.
DE: Your work has what I would call a kind of subjective atmosphere. But I was thinking that perhaps it is more about the imagination of a subject than about you in particular. Or is the viewer an eavesdropper on an artistic conversation you are having with yourself? When a viewer looks at your work, are they standing in your shoes or are they looking at the artist’s idea of a sense of a subject?
NM: These questions touch a nerve. At first I thought my work really was about me. I thought the only possible starting point was to do something really vulnerable, really soft, knowing that the easiest reaction people would have would be to be dismissive. That still happens, but now I also have the non-specific sense that I am kind of constructing something to a constructed person, the viewer perhaps. Theresa Hak Kyung Cha wrote about wanting to be the ‘dream of the audience’, which is a beautiful reversal. When I make an exhibition, I try to sensitize the space for the viewer, make it self-conscious. A situation where viewers find themselves looking at the viewers looking at art. That’s the feeling I always have looking at Louise Lawler’s work, not that I want to compare myself to her.
DE: Looking at your compositions sometimes makes me wonder whether they are caught fleeing or still in a state of emerging.
NM: I like that idea.
DE: There is a trope in your work which involves a sense that they are full of subjects but avoid explicit content.
NM: Yes, there’s an over-arching effort to leave things very open, or even emptied out. I also think it’s a deliberate reaction to a certain demand for quantifiable meaning. But that has met with a lot of frustration. Some people think that is an irresponsible position. Some people like to nail things down.
DE: But what nails do people like that want to use?
NM: (laughs) In my work everything is contingent, and I think that’s obvious. What I try to do is sort of widen the field so that the possibility that it is just a game of references doesn’t exist, so that everything is untethered.
DE: But at the same time literature—for example the writings of Denton Welch—and films such as Georges Perec and Bernard Queysanne’s Un homme qui dort (A Man Asleep, 1974) are extremely important to you. For example, your works and exhibition titles often hint formally at the book form, or use quotes.
NM: A lot of it is a kind of visualization of what happens while reading. When you start to fixate on certain passages and you start to imagine annotations like a figure at the bottom of a page, and what you’re left with later are just these figures and ornaments against the backdrop of the missing text. I’ve started to think about how to apply this kind of thinking/feeling to spaces, like in the installation of drawings and paper-like sculptures at Neu in 2007, where things that can happen poetically in a drawing were enacted in the bending and folding of these printed metal sheets. What happens in these sculptures, or why it is exciting, is how these things touch each other. Or why are they next to each other? Or why are they sort of under each other? There has to be awkwardness or even a total unraveling.
DE: Your collaborative work, most importantly with artist Ken Okiishi, is also crucial to you, right?
NM: One of the works I am happiest with is One Season in Hell (2007). We just used the given text by Rimbaud mistranslated by Google and rewritten by Ken. Ken’s ‘translation’ is so flawed and hysterical. It goes in a million different directions. In the work the text gets totally refracted and illustrated with images that don’t really relate. We also hung it theatrically—suspended in the space instead of on the walls. The projects that Ken and I make come out of our life together. Ongoing conversations and disagreements sometimes develop artistically, and we try to take risks and see what can come out of that.
DE: Is your work an exploration of sensibility?
NM: One time someone said to me that my work defines itself by everything that it doesn’t want to be, rather than just giving out what it is.
Originally published on Mousse 20 (September–October 2009)