Nick Mauss
Ornament Is No Crime

Nick Mauss not only uses paper for his drawings. For his poetic creations, the New York artist employs sharp-edged aluminum sheets, mirrors or tiles. But no matter which material Nick Mauss opts for, the resulting works are looking extremely good. But what lies behind the surfaces? Achim Drucks tries to find out.
When one of his teachers at The Cooper Union School of Art asked what the most important theme of his artistic work was, Nick Mauss answered “influence.” And that is still true today. “I am really voracious when it comes to looking and reading. I love so many things.” But the things that excite him are not expressed directly in the works of the artist, who was born in 1980. Instead, his sketchy drawings look provisional, move between figuration and abstraction, like his work Transparent from the Deutsche Bank Collection. Smears of acrylic paint and pastel colors overlay drawings made with colored pencil, graffiti, and ink. Photos and text fragments run into one another, forming ever-new constellations.

His motifs are akin to hazy pictures that flash in memory. “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.” Yet his drawings on paper and bent aluminum sheets transport a feeling, a taste of what inspired their genesis:  pixelated cellphone photos of a friend, the books of Jane Bowles, the costumes and set design that Léon Bakst created for the Ballets Russes, or the works of Roberto Burle Marx, who like Bakst dissolved the boundaries between art and design. 

It is precisely his interdisciplinary approach that makes many current artists so enamored of the Brazilian. This was underscored in the exhibition Roberto Burle Marx: Brazilian Modernist at the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle. On the one hand, it showed that Burle Marx was much more than a designer of gardens and mosaic tiles on the Copacabana. He also worked as a painter and sculptor, created ceramics, set designs, carpets, and jewelry. In Berlin, Burle Marx’s manifold work was juxtaposed with creations by international contemporary artists influenced by him. One of them is Nick Mauss, who is presented a selection of his ceramic objects at the KunstHalle that were inspired by Burle Marx’s tile decors and tapestries. “With these plaques I found a way of drawing or painting that embraces chance and accident. Glazes change color and opacity during the firing process. The resulting plaque is an object in between different media, a kind of hardened watercolor, or vitreous photograph, or submerged textile,” explains Mauss, who has experimented with ceramics for a few years now. “I tend to invent new surfaces to work on, with, or through—surfaces whose material confusion heavily inflects my voice, so to speak.”

Examples of Mauss’s intuitive approach to materials were also found in his project for the Museu Serralves in Porto. He presented his work in the neighboring Casa de Serralves, one of the most beautiful Ar Deco buildings in Portugal. In the elegant, light-flooded rooms he installed drawings projections, and  mirror works. At first glance, it seems as though the artist works on the reflecting surface. In fact, however, he paints and draws on the back of the glass. Only later does he apply the reflective coating, which gives rise to unpredictable effects: darkenings, light reflexes, solarizations. The actual picture is under the surface—or perhaps behind the mirror, where Lewis Carroll’s Alice travels through the unconscious. Mauss likes to work with reflecting surfaces, which look different from every angle. The here and now—the changing light, the surroundings, and not least of all the viewer himself—become a component of the composition, which consequently is in a process of constant change that never ends.

The technique that Nick Mauss uses for these works has a very specific tradition. Religious reverse glass paintings were very popular in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. With Jean Dupas—one of the artist’s favorites—“verre églomisé” subsequently reached its pinnacle in the 1930s. Folk art was transformed into a product for the elites. Dupas adorned the walls of the Grand Salon of the SS Normandie, the world’s largest and most elegant passenger ship at the time, with hyperaesthetic mythologies in the Art Deco style, which Nick Mauss is particularly fond of. For him, ornament is not a crime.

Unlike many artists, he is not afraid of beauty or the decorative. “A certain time period’s expressions in decoration are always as interesting―if not even richer― as its artistic expressions. But because I take decoration seriously my relationship to painting is often seen as flippant.” He often emphasizes the “utopian dimension” expressed in movements such as the Bauhaus. The artist views the devaluation of the decorative as a kind of “cultural imperialism.” “I initially developed an interest in the decorative because of its ‘apparent’ weakness.” This appraisal is of course also due to the fact that décor is often associated with “femininity” or “homosexuality” and art critics often use the term as a kind of swearword.

He is also enthusiastic about things that critics disqualify as kitsch. For instance, he is a fan of Tony Duquette’s lavish settings for Hollywood musicals such as Vincente Minnelli’s Yolanda and the Thief (1945). The New York Times summed up Duquette’s design philosophy as “exotic excess.” It is claimed that he was the only person who could spend 999 dollars in a 99-cent store. In his villa, opulent eighteenth-century French antiquities stood in a room whose ceiling Duquette had embellished with golden plastic serving trays. Mauss appreciates this “tendency toward bricolage,” as he puts it, the natural bringing together of objects of different provenances, which he also sees in Burle Marx. Mauss is euphoric about things that speak an aesthetic language that can be termed “queer”—not necessarily in a sexual sense, but more along the lines of differentness. Positions that were ousted from official art history. He is interested in a certain kind of sensitivity, the undermining of hierarchies, breaches, border crossings. He likes the camp excess of Tony Duquette, the obsessive notations with which Hanne Darboven fills entire rooms, and the exuberant psycho-assemblages of Isa Genzken.

His contribution to the 2012 Whitney Biennale also conveys this sensitivity. The installation Concern, Crush, Desire is based on the Institut de Beauté on the Champs-Élysées that was designed by the now almost forgotten fashion  and stage designer Christian Bérard for the Guerlain perfume house in 1939. Mauss covered the walls and ceiling of a small room with yellow velvet on which he put black and white cotton appliques reminiscent of enlarged brushstrokes that sketchily recalled Bérard’s architectural décor. In this ambience, alongside his projection works he presented an eclectic selection of works from the Whitney’s collection: unknown photos of Andy Warhol and Garry Winogrand encountered drawn love letters of Art Deco designer Eyre De Lanux and one of the surrealistic garbage assemblages of the feminist artist May Wilson. In his catalogue essay, tellingly titled “Don’t Explain Yourself,” Mauss writes: “I never wanted to claim over anything but to find a way to incorporate without assimilating, without forcing to conform.”

It is such fragments of twentieth-century visual culture that Mauss takes up, processes beyond recognition, and then has reappear in his pictures—debris that comes together to form ever-new formations on the surface of the water. However, this has nothing to do with nostalgic conjurations of the past, but rather with “the desire for the possibility of new images.” This Philipp Otto Runge quote gave him the title for one of his exhibitions. Mauss is interested in changing images and the meanings they convey, precisely in the age of Instagram and Snapcht in which the half-life period of visual impressions is becoming ever shorter. With his collage-like compositions, he addresses the phenomenon of images becoming more fleeting and emptier. Mauss characterizes his work as “an overarching 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.” Naturally, in politically trying times his seductive works can be criticized as pure l'art pour l'art that only very discreetly transports references to utopias of “queer” art and society. Yet perhaps his completely undidactic art is simply visual poetry that grants the viewer the greatest possible freedom.