Nick Mauss, Concern, crush, desire (detail), 2011, cotton appliqué on velvet, brass door-knobs, door stoppers, 10' 11“ x 9' 7”.

Nick Mauss, Concern, crush, desire (detail), 2011, cotton appliqué on velvet, brass door-knobs, door stoppers, 10' 11“ x 9' 7”.

Nick Mauss

Nick Mauss, Concern, crush, desire (detail), 2011, cotton appliqué on velvet, brass door-knobs, door stoppers, 10' 11“ x 9' 7”.

Starting with AD, a mere syllable, followed by APPROACHED ONLY BY INTUITION AND PIECEMEAL, the second line of the card for Nick Mauss’s “Perforations” gave the first impression of the detachment that characterized his solo show in Minneapolis. The cropped line of text was taken from a book on the French painter Édouard Vuillard (1868–1940) and aptly pointed to the fractional understanding with which most viewers likely engaged this exhibition, as well as to the fragmented nature of the exhibition itself: two rooms featuring ethereal abstract drawings and a reverse slide projection separated by a reiteration of an antechamber at the Institut Guerlain in Paris—designed in the 1930s by Jean-Michel Frank to be made by stage designer Christian Bérard.

If in Mauss’s work surface meaning is fleeting, perhaps the content of this show was best read from the inside out, beginning with the small room that formed the exhibition’s literal and symbolic central passageway. To stand in this space was to be immersed in a golden velvet room (made of three walls and a drop ceiling) dressed with strips of cotton appliqué in muted tones that articulated Neoclassical architectural detailing to trompe l’oeil effect. Or, one might say, to stand in the heart of Mauss’s exhibition was to be immersed in a sweeping, decadent illusion that had been literally stitched together.

Exiting the room, which could be done through twin doors or an open “fourth wall,” one was returned to common white-cube viewing conditions. Eleven deliberately restrained mixed-media drawings featuring muted colors and determinedly vague subjects had no apparent relation to the world of Guerlain/Bérard. But perhaps that was the point: to allow the afterimage of something richly experiential to inform each viewer’s own subjective read of the delicately abstract (if at times verging on figurative) lines that Mauss cast atop ethereal gouache washes, or of the deftly layered marks (in ink, acrylic, and gouache) of repetitive imagery and swaths of color that floated in multiple directions across Come and Interrupt Me, 2007. Gradual shifts of color and form were likewise realized in the slow-paced, laptop-screen-size backlit slide projection (I am working without knowing too well on what, and I am writing this on the side, 2011), which was embedded in the wall. Featuring a series of monochromatic lighting gels, interspersed with pictures of interiors, text, and Skype chat-screen shots, the haphazard sequence hinged on the persistence of the viewer’s vision (and memory), imprinting on it further traces of the artist’s nuanced aesthetic without ever cohering a clear narrative through-line.

Meaning seemed to occur between realities in this show, the physical only intelligible when filtered through the phenomenological irrational free-association. Here, meaning interrupted itself, references to historical figures opening rabbit-hole-like portals into the abyss: Writing in the catalogue, the artist jumped abruptly from a fictional personal anecdote to a quotation by Walter Benjamin to a historical analysis of Bérard before closing the essay with the designer bellowing, “I’m not here!” Though the intention to allow, even engender ambiguity may stem from the artist’s interest in engaging the viewer in the process of meaning-production or in completely avoiding any hint of didacticism, it can also lead to a form of communication that ultimately underwhelms, that gives the viewer too much of not quite enough. Unclear narrative can be a weakness of Mauss’s open-ended work—or at least it was here in Minneapolis, at some remove from the artist’s home bases of New York and Berlin. Nevertheless, the individual pieces in this show still richly rewarded the indulgent act of slow looking.

John McKinnon