Mark Mothersbaugh: Myopia
Grey Art Gallery, NYU
April 26–July 15, 2017
by MARK BLOCH, JUL. 2017
Organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Denver, and traveling to Ohio, Texas, Minnesota and elsewhere before arriving at NYU’s Grey Art Gallery, Mark Mothersbaugh: Myopia featured more than five hundred objects, including costumes, home recordings from DEVO performances, prints, drawings, paintings, sculptures, rugs, video animations, sculptures, installations and, for me, the pièce de résistance: a series of some thirty thousand postcard-sized drawings he produced over the last five decades in an enormous installation of identical plastic-sleeved notebooks.
In Myopia, the prolific composer, musician, and tinkerer Mark Mothersbaugh (b. 1950), moved seamlessly between visual art, sonic environments, film, television and his own career to deftly combine consumer culture and the handmade to offer a rich investigation of the relationship between technology and individuality in a post-punk, post-selfie capitalist society that he seems to navigate with amusing ease.
In previous incarnations as the front man for the New Wave(ish) rock’n’roll band DEVO, and then as the creator of scores for Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, the Rugrats franchise and then Wes Anderson movies, Mothersbaugh has publically exhibited an apparent ability to culturally mutate, even while making “celebrations of mutations” his subject matter. This adroit facility to transform himself and his Pop environment has now extended to the fine art world in this recent show that was the final stop on a memorable trip for the artist.
When Mothersbaugh and friends—from my hometown of Akron, Ohio and my alma mater, Kent State University—founded the band they christened DEVO, short for de-evolution, at first, few took notice. I wrote one of the first “reviews” of the band in one of my early zines, perhaps predicting something about his future, calling them “the band nobody understands.” Mothersbaugh agreed that I was ahead of the crowd for even knowing who they were in those days, having seen them “open” for a film—John Waters’ Pink Flamingos in 1974 or 5, where they were pelted with beer cans by a disapproving crowd. “It happened,” he recalled. But by 1978 they were wiggling out of their jumpsuits on Saturday Night Live, during a unique rendition of the Stones’ Satisfaction.
Adam Lerner, the show’s curator and the MCA Denver’s Director and “Chief Animator” noted, “Music was only one part of the picture—also absolutely essential was a thoughtful interpretation of de-evolution, the idea that the world is falling apart.” As the show traveled, Lerner conducted several hilarious public interviews with Mothersbaugh on subjects ranging from the artist’s subversive experiences creating TV commercials to his providing witness for people speaking in tongues as a flabbergasted teen in Akron, which Mothersbaugh correctly cites as the birthplace of televangelism.
Speaking of Lerner, Mothersbaugh said, “I got convinced to do the show and I became exposed to all these museums and realized, sure, they might be in multi-million dollar buildings with multi-million dollar art collections, but the people inside are incredibly committed to art and are incredibly important to the community. The director of every museum has a heavy responsibility to bring the money in. Because it’s like an NPR-kind-of-situation where they are on these budgets, trying to keep the lights on.”
He went further: “I got this respect for the people in these museums. They are drawn to the realization of some artist’s exhibition and for my show there were a lot of people at every museum that pull together and helped make the show a success. It was very illuminating and humbling. I realized I’d made a mistake in my assumptions. I just feel so lucky that I ran into this guy that curated the show for me because he really changed my life in a really good way.”
At Kent State, the undergrad Mothersbaugh encountered grad students Gerald “Jerry” Casale who became his principal partner and Bob Lewis, a co-founder who soon took on a managerial role with the band and later settled with them over intellectual property rights. They, and the other original members of DEVO all became part of history by witnessing one of the defining tragedies of their generation in 1970, when the Ohio National Guard opened fire during demonstrations against the invasion of Cambodia during the Vietnam War and killed four students. The day before the shooting, Mothersbaugh had taken part in these protests while Casale’s friend Jeffrey Miller was one of the murdered. The shocking tragedy inspired DEVO’s name and its foundational concept: humans progressing developmentally—in reverse.
Originally, “Art Devo” was a multi-media concept akin to Art Deco and Art Nouveau, inspired by Beat counterculture and literature with the music as only an adjunct quality. This exhibition shows how Mothersbaugh helped establish the group’s defining look and theoretical stance through flyers, album covers, performance photographs, and signature outfits based on matching workers’ overalls, hazmat suits, and even garbage bags. Throughout the show, echoes of Futurism, Dada, German Expressionism, Situationism and Mail Art—as well as fascism—appear. “We thought we were doing agit-prop,” Mothersbaugh concurs.
Groundbreaking DIY short films including collaborations with now-Minneapolis Akronite filmmaker, Chuck Statler, that captured the group’s early performances are accompanied by photographs by Bruce Conner, who later made a film for DEVO’s song “Mongoloid,” another early music video. These works and others reveal prescient and savvy marketing efforts via playful but poignant artworks worth contemplating in their own right.
Lerner cites Mothersbaugh’s Booji Boy mask, a rosy-cheeked, man-child character and alter ego as a very human counterpart to the hard-edge posturing of the group’s robotic demeanor. Indeed, the show’s title, Myopia, refers to the legally blind artist’s very human experience of a condition which went undiagnosed until he was eight, casting him the position of a bemused victim of circumstances. Lerner posits that Booji Boy represents the ability to transcend the vulnerable child in oneself, something Mothersbaugh seems to have mastered.
His fascination with medicine and postwar American fiction, central themes of DEVO’s signature look and art, also came through here. Digitally manipulated, mirrored, self-mocking images inform the photographic series Beautiful Mutants begun in the 1990s; five-foot-tall double-rear-ended equine sculptures, 50 Foot Tall Scale Models of Proposed Farewell Arches to Luxembourg City (2014) are painted fiberglass models for public sculpture; and in Ruby Kusturd (2009–14), kinetic sculpture is carved from the world’s largest ruby (30,090 carats), resembling an ice cream cone mounted on a polished bronze base. Finally, the Orchestrions, painstakingly created out of abandoned organ pipes and birdcalls, are contraptions from the Rube Goldberg-Spike Jones-Charles Ives continuum that resembled a sea of upside down wooden chairs, programmed or played in performances including a concert-performance staged in conjunction with the exhibition.
Finally, visitors were able to flip through books of Mothersbaugh’s postcard-sized drawings regally presented on a custom-built display. “You talk about postcards. There’s 30 thousand pieces of paper upstairs out of 45 thousand I’ve done.” Mothersbaugh told me. “Each one is an original piece.” Part notebook, part sketchbook, and part personal diary, Mothersbaugh draws on cards constantly, habitually recording his inner life. “If I forgot to bring something and I’m in a hotel room in the middle of the night, I get nervous and I go looking in the guest directory and start looking for a thick enough card stock that I can deface.”
“They’re called postcards but that’s not always correct,” he says. Not only are Mark and I both from Akron but we both participated in mail art so I asked him if these qualified. He admitted, “I have to be honest... somewhere in the early seventies I stopped mailing them. And I still do mail art occasionally but these became like a diary and an image source bank for me.”
Indeed, the rugs and posters and animations and enlargements all around me in the gallery resembled the images on the thousands of cards arrayed in their amazing binders.
“I always thought, when I retire I’m either gonna sit on the end of the Santa Monica pier and sell ‘em at a postcard shop for 25 cents a piece or I’m going to just mail ‘em out. Every day mail out a stack of ‘em,” he imagined.
It was fulfilling to see this multi-media homeboy artist accepting his fate and enjoying himself so thoroughly. “I think this is the best time to be an artist of any time ever,” he said. “I think we’re in this place where technology is something that is really beneficial. I’m just curious where film, for instance, is gonna go now. I don’t think you will even need Hollywood anymore in a few years,” said the man who scored 1998’s Rushmore, 2001’s The Royal Tenenbaums, and 2004’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.
Ever the do-it-yourself guy, Mothersbaugh adds, “I wish I was 12 years old. That’s the only thing I would change. I’d love to be a kid who looks at that stuff and they just absorb it, like I did with printmaking when I was at Kent State.”
“My kids make movies at home, kids in the Amazon make movies at home. With what they have just on their phone, they can do it and it’s transparent to them.” Perhaps recalling the early DEVO movies, he added “It’s not starting this design company and working for 6 months just to make three thousand bucks so I can buy some film stock. Just pick up your phone, for $1.99 download an app, and ‘boom’ they’re directing; they’re writing scripts; they’re getting their friends to act with them; they put music in it.”
That sounded like a rich combination of all the major phases of Mark Mothersbaugh’s life—from a kid with myopia trying to make sense of the world until he got his first pair of glasses, to a successful pop star who moved gracefully from the spotlight to appreciating what it takes to create heartfelt art, a lifelong passion and necessity.
An illustrated catalogue accompanies Mark Mothersbaugh: Myopia, edited by Lerner and published by Princeton Architectural Press. It features a foreword by filmmaker Anderson and essays by writers from the worlds of both art and academia.
“It’s sort of a whole new part of my life,” Mothersbaugh confided. “There’s this new chapter that I never thought was going to happen.” He expected the process of sharing his art to be much like the process sharing his music but he realizes now he was dead wrong. “This community is totally different from the entertainment industry,” he explained, recalling why he had avoided it at all costs, “It’s gonna be like what happened when Devo got out to Los Angeles and then the song, Whip It, happened and then it became everything they could do to try to get us to make another Whip It." But despite the rewards, it effected him adversely, “They didn’t care about the art—ever. And they never understood what we were doing—ever.”
Mothersbaugh found his way to the art world when, prior to this touring show, he cleverly advertised in tiny ads in the backs of obscure magazines that his art was available for exhibition—but only in the kinds of back room galleries found in downtown warehouse districts run by “kids with skateboards.” At NYU he seems to have struck a harmonious chord encompassing all of his societal concerns and diverse skillset. WM
Mark Bloch is a writer, performer, videographer and multi-media artist living in Manhattan. In 1978, this native Ohioan founded the Post(al) Art Network a.k.a. PAN. NYU's Downtown Collection now houses an archive of many of Bloch's papers including a vast collection of mail art and related ephemera. For three decades Bloch has done performance art in the USA and internationally. In addition to his work as a writer and fine artist, he has also worked as a graphic designer for ABCNews.com, The New York Times, Rolling Stone and elsewhere. He can be reached at email@example.com and PO Box 1500 NYC 10009.
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