Against Identification: Q+A With Nick Mauss
Artist Nick Mauss's current exhibition, "The Desire for the Possibility of New Images" at 303 Gallery [through Feb. 18], is a landscape littered with sheets of folded and cut aluminum, scattered across the floor and pinned to the walls like a manuscript caught in an updraft. Glazed ceramic, paper, and silkscreened aluminum sheets present tenuous, delicate drawings that appear as if they could easily splinter from the materials that bind them. Silkscreened onto the aluminum surfaces, repeated images and half formed figures reference and annotate one another as one seeks to construct a whole image from multiple fragments. While Mauss employs various forms and media, his drawings are a consistent thread throughout the work.
The 31-year-old Mauss lives and works between New York and Berlin, and will partake in this year's Whitney Biennial. In collaboration with his partner, artist Ken Okiishi, he has staged exhibitions, at Gavin Brown's Enterprise in 2007 and Künstlerhaus Stuttgart, based on a Google-translated version of Rimbaud's 1873 poem "Season in Hell."
DENA YAGO Your aluminum sheets silkscreened with photographs, with titles such as Distance and Images, Animation, Room in a Seashell (all works, 2011), present obscured images on cut and bent surfaces. They seem to function both as large sculptural works, and as supports for an unknowable image?
NICK MAUSS I've used oversized, paperlike, metal-edged sheets of aluminum before, but this is the first time they've taken over the entire space. A few people have asked me if they're printing plates, but I was really looking instead to make a purposeless object that could convey that images themselves can function as a kind of material.
Some of the images printed on the white sheets record sculptural situations, like Room in a Seashell, the archivolt in the shape of a shell, or the shadow of photographing hands held over sketches for dress constructions by Madame Grès.
The exhibition suggests leaps from image to object, from graphics to architecture, from drawings to prints. Even when making sculpture, I am strongly influenced by the experience of flipping through images and texts, focusing on the moment in which an event in a text or on the space of a page "shudders" and you sense the dissolution of the word, or the image. That has always seemed to be a very powerful, "felt" sculptural experience with a lot of different transitions.
I think that the sheet sculptures come out of wanting to say something about the mental quality of the suspended, internalized or literally incorporated image as a concrete material. Another, almost mannerist tendency is to intervene into the space, as with these corner wall pieces, Arrow and Please Turn the Page Quietly—to create different areas of looking and recombining works.
YAGO How do the images, often referring to an implicit structural use, such as a dress construction or an architectural embellishment, operate outside of their content?
MAUSS The relationship between the drawings and photographs is determined by a process of thinking about the drawing as a plan, or an object as a former drawing, whether that is in a pleated and draped dress or in an architectural detail that stands between memories of ornament and function. The images are selected to push against the viewer's drive to identify; they are meant to elicit something else.
YAGO How would you describe the poetic or lyrical tempo of your work?
MAUSS I'm always shuffling, revisiting, looking at new constellations of what I've been working with. But there's also a moment, while working, when I no longer recognize a thing. Over the summer I was putting together a book in which I wanted to merge various works from the last three years, and I noticed how foreign many of the pieces and details of installations seemed to me. The repetition and recombination in "The Desire for the Possibility of New Images" is stubborn, since the repetition doesn't bring the images any closer or disclose anything extra. One work in particular, titled Stutter, an aluminum sheet folded in half and mounted on the wall, turns something that at first glance seems to aspire to a sort of lyricism into a redundant loop. The same reproduction of a drawing of a disembodied head sleeping above a graphic is printed on both sides of the sheet, with its back revealed by the crease near the middle of the sheet.
YAGO So even when you are depicting an image, it is revealed through fragments?
MAUSS To me, fragments read as intensities of attention. Whatever is depicted in partial form is assumed to be more important than any other part of the undepicted whole. Perhaps this is a reason I keep returning to drawings, because the distribution of attention is so uneven. In my own drawings the fragment is only sometimes a representation or study. It's a kind of fixation, a pause from which one can spin out. An arrangement of fragments on a page collapses various attentions into one simultaneous reading, resonating like an emblem. Traveling around the white sheet I don't think that there is much ambiguity. The questions that rise to the surface of the blank spaces function as signs that push from one conjunction to the next.
YAGO In your ceramic paintings and drawings, fragments of an image seem to reference an image that was either never wholly produced, or produced outside of the frame.
MAUSS I want to be very specific about what I call to mind in my work and what I am engaging with, or relying on directly, and in many ways I think that what interests me the most is the difficulty of connecting a current practice to something that can't possibly be grasped entirely—so this would be something akin to the task of the translator, navigating origin and distance. I say this in light of my feeling that "reference" is used to produce assurance, value or satisfaction in confirming the artist's and the viewer's intelligence, which generates a slickness that I'm not interested in.
When I'm looking and working, doing a kind of aleatory research, I've realized I'm looking for forms that I can't rationalize and that I want to keep reiterating and putting into constellation with others. A network is being made between actual things that I've seen or experienced, not references. "The desire for the possibility of new images," a yearning expressed by the artist Philipp Otto Runge, names a condition that strikes me personally—and generally—as very apropos. The word "possibility" brings with it the notion of "impossibility." What this could have meant for Runge is an art historical question that doesn't interest me that much. But certainly I am affected by the sentiment of a poem Runge described in a letter that "creates in the perception of the reader herself the conceivability of the possibility, or the desire for the possibility of such images." This double removal from the image, not only by the potential of "possibility," but by the mental strain that permits "conceivability," is almost tragic. How could one measure that enormous rift?
YAGO Many of your titles allude to the production of or reading of documents, such as Please Turn Page Quietly or Illuminated Margin. The drawings displayed in the vitrine, But it wasn't true. It wasn't the same thing. It was the continuation, look as if they are half opened books. What kind of "reading" does your work call for?
MAUSS I actually didn't consider that the display of drawings in the vitrine could resemble books. In this case, the presentation was determined entirely by my wish to make the work's interior visible. I saw a display like this in a museum, where it was used to elevate very old drawings to show their face and their underside in a very gentle way—it struck me that only a child could have thought of such a way of showing both sides.
One of my initial ideas about the show was that it would capture, or enable, a particular way of looking that has the feeling of an encounter in that it gradually allows different elements to reveal themselves, and for details to come into focus, but never allows the entirety to be grasped. The space is full of agitated, "inscribed" surfaces - but as you move through it, I want the experience to finish with inscriptions that have, on the reverse side, different, potentially contradictory inscriptions. I can see why you ask about the "reading" of my work, as the works in the show are grouped in a way that suggests a syntax, garlands or constellations. But the more I think about your question, I would say that the work has to do with leftovers or excesses of reading rather than with any kind of legibility. I'm interested in the mind frame produced by the work—and potentially folding that frame.