It seems that Nick Mauss loves drawing so much he wants to totally fuck with it. The 32-year-old Cooper Union grad, who is included in this year’s Whitney Biennial, has been showing internationally for a decade, starting with a group exhibition at the late Colin de Land’s American Fine Arts when the artist was just 21. He consistently treats drawing not as a class of objects or an activity but as an attitude toward pictorial information that prefers implication to statement, confusion to clarity, the inconclusive to the definitive. Mauss deliberately prolongs those moments of irresolution and misdirection that drawing might help another artist to remedy. The paradox of his recent 303 exhibition, titled “The desire for the possibility of new images,” is that Mauss’s preference for indeterminacy has now become an entrenched position.
The busy show (all works 2011 or 2012) encompassed ceramic panels, wavy silkscreened aluminum sheets scattered on the floor and walls, and six drawings—three framed, three (each double-sided) in a vitrine. The wall-hung multiplying outlines, in colored pencil and marker on paper, includes vague indications of a sleeping (dead?) man’s profile, windows or frames, hands and what might be rippling water or an open box of Kleenex. The composition’s understated grid organization is canted a few degrees; perhaps it represents a wall of tacked-up drawings. A faint second grid, loosely and lastly added, alludes to the atelier technique of “squaring up.” Does multiplying outlines, then, evoke the prospect of a squared-up drawing of a drawing of drawings?
The 15 silkscreened aluminum works—often bent, folded or partially rolled up—resemble large sheets of whit- ish paper bearing a blend of inchoate marks and photocopied photographs, seeming of the notational kind that are sometimes made in lieu of a sketch. Illuminated Margin leans against a wall, presenting a flurry of lines that suggest gentle hills or a reclining figure; down the left side runs a darker band in which a drawing of an elbow or knee can be discerned. Here and there (for example, on the floor, among the images on the piled- up, sometimes folded aluminum sheets of Animation) appears a photo of the shadow of two hands holding an iPhone in a picture-taking position; the shadow falls on a sheet of design sketches for ladies’ evening wear.
The wall-hung ceramic works function as small paintings in their orchestration of offhand, brushy marks, seductive tactility and semitransparent coloristic effects in illusionistic space. In the curtain is light enough to rise, fragmentary linear studies of standing male figures are overlaid with diaphanous veils of wet- into-wet glaze and unrecognizable lump forms. Committing a doodle to the kiln is funny, but funnier still is the vitrine work, titled But it wasn’t true. It wasn’t the same thing. It was the continuation. The three drawings are angled above mirrors so both sides may be considered: ironic presenta- tional overkill for Mauss’s signature mix of studiously false starts.
Photo: View of Nick Mauss’s exhibition “The desire for the possibility of new images,” 2012; at 303.
In 2005, Nick Mauss (b. 1980) was catapulted into the permanent collection of MoMA with its acquisition of over 40 drawings by him, part of the Judith Rothschild Foundation Contemporary Drawings Collection Gift. They are early works, dating to 2003-04, mostly executed on marbled paper, and represent prodigious flights of youthful fancy. Colors explode and dissolve free of the restraint of form, flourishing with Kandinsky-like exuberance. Mauss’s latest work, in marked contrast, is an exercise in finding visual expression for silence. In addition to a new series of small silver paintings on panel, his installation at 303 included three large-scale works—Pavilion, Insert and Occasion—each a paragon of fragile strength. For example, Insert stands 9 feet tall and 10 feet wide, and is composed of a simple rectilinear white wood structure supporting a giant sheet of white paper through which an irregular shape has been torn, as though someone had walked through it.
Mauss began the large group of silver paintings (all 2009) that were the core of the recent exhibition after an intense period of drawing, and they are finely balanced between the two mediums. He casts the humble line as the solitary actor, confronting the representational capacity of painting in much the same way that Jasper Johns does with unmediated gray. But Mauss’s silver panels are less paintings about paintings than are Johns’s, and are more elemental in their studies of light and dark. Working with a severely restricted palette, Mauss manages to convey everything from utter flatness to convincing depth, from nebulousness to palpable forms such as the central vertical figure in figure in a loom.
Before laying down the aluminum leaf that doubles for silver and resists tarnishing, Mauss covers the wooden panels with a black acrylic ground. Using a range of techniques, from rubbing and rasping to stenciling, he creates palimpsests in which each mark is recorded, lost and reinscribed. In their simplicity, the silver paintings are reminiscent of those children’s plastic tablets on which one can record a thought or a drawing and just as easily erase it. At the same time, their shiny surfaces prompt the viewer to look from multiple angles, as if staring at the dance of light on moving water. Mauss’s delicacy recalls a similar quality in the work of Paul Klee, who so often conveyed a sense of pleasure in creation.
Photo: Nick Mauss: silent adjustments, 2009, mixed mediums on panel, 193⁄4 by 153⁄4 inches; at 303.